The Lucky Body
THE LUCKY BODY is a series of short stories which dramatizes instances of rupture in socially normative modes of behavior and interaction. Each story depicts the presence of others–other bodies, other individuals or groups of people–as potential threats to the autonomy of the self. Throughout THE LUCKY BODY these conflicts often result in acts of symbolic or literal violence, though always with the aim of illustrating the contentious, frightened, frequently confused human desire to connect with others unlike oneself. Taken as a whole, these stories depict the stresses and misunderstandings that result from such an attempt–to live as an active participant, and not merely an observer, in a world populated by alien, elaborate presences: other people, deceptively similar yet so unlike ourselves.
Anna Petrovich, Anna P. as her friends called her (her editor at Novaya Gazeta, Mischa Hosculman, called her Petrovich—the negation of familiarity belying his affection for her) had reported on the wars in Khruekistan and predicted the consolidation of power by Akhmed Cherkeso’s son after his assassination two years ago. His son had been the head of security forces. He wasn’t yet thirty years old when his father had died. This is how it had happened: at a public Independence Day rally at Iznek Stadium, he’d sat in the twenty-fifth row of the concrete bleachers overlooking the youth parade. Several hundred pounds of explosives had been
Anna had to wait eighteen months before she was allowed to contact President the Younger Cherkeso, six more before she was granted council with him. She had spoken by telephone with a series of functionaries, all who claimed to be speaking on behalf of Mr. Cherkeso. Yes, the President had agreed, it was important to develop a relationship with reporters from Moscow. It would be necessary especially in light of the Kremlin’s support of his efforts to rebuild and rehabilitate his country’s sense of direction and identity. Not seventy years had passed since Stalin’s
Anna smiled dryly at that. She had been in country for three months and had seen more than enough fresh graves. The problem was, there weren’t enough of them. Public executions had been the chosen deterrent for any rebels still embedded in the villages. In Porguna, forty miles to the west of Iznek, she had witnessed the murder of two men by government security agents. She had stood in the gathering crowd near the oil pipeline outside the village, disguised beneath a burkha, while the two men, possible rebels dressed in track suits, were shot and beheaded. The heads were placed chest-high atop the pipeline. Security agents posed next to them for photos from their camera phones.
She had seen similar things in the south of the country. The president’s control was stronger in the east and the north. Moscow had expressed an interest in unifying the country fully by the end of the year. Here it was, halfway through summer, and this deadline seemed all but met. Anna had framed her request to meet President Cherkeso in these terms: to discuss his plans for the country once its regions had been stabilized and local governments had been integrated under his authority. Word was received by her editor in Moscow. Yes, it is time we sat down and outlined in a public manner our plans for the future. The time came sooner than she had thought: “President Cherkeso would be happy to sit down with you later this week, Saturday.”
Saturday morning she left her hotel in Iznek early and in a rental car drove west. The
Before she had left the hotel that morning, she had told her husband Ilya, “My hands have been shaking for two days now. I want a drink or a Vicodin to calm my nerves.” Her husband, also a journalist, had taught her a breathing exercise that he had used in the past; to hold one’s arms above one’s head and breathe rapidly through the nose; to do this for three minutes and, when done, to hold one’s breath for as long as one can and then lay on the floor with eyes closed. He called it his “Five Minute Sanity Session”. The tension in Anna’s voice was so strong, the cell phone in his hand seemed ready to collapse from the pressure if he let her keep talking; so he asked her to take “five minutes of sanity”. “I’ve already done that, right before I called you,” she said. “I know nothing will happen. I’ll go there, ask my questions, stir his ire, and then be sent away. He needs to put on a good strong face for the press. Journalists don’t have a way of disappearing when they go to talk with him. That comes later. After the articles are published.” Ilya could tell she was
“Call me any time,” he said. “From the drive there. From Cherkeso’s place. Remember, we want you back here by the end of the month. We’ll coddle you like a batty old heiress. Be safe.” She nodded, and then said, “I’m safe. Don’t worry. I’m just nervous. More later, Mr. Husband.” After they’d said their goodbyes, Ilya sat on the edge of his bed and imagined Anna doing the same, then noted to himself, “You don’t get nervous. And now you are.” When he looked at the clock on the nightstand, it said nine thirty.
Now that she was driving to meet Cherkeso, her nerves were feeding back into her usual state of calm alertness. What had begun as a quick drive through ugly countryside had gradually become more pleasant. The land between the capital and Uzun was not as ruined as she’d expected. It had rained before dawn, and the dark trees,
She drove without thinking, preparing her instincts for the netting and recording of quick details. This was what she called her “cleaning ritual”. Hours before an interview, she would empty her mind of any reference points or opinions of her subject. Not that she was erasing the vital lines leading from the present moment back to the compiled information she had prepared and reviewed weeks beforehand; rather she was clearing the way between the two, so when she needed to draw on some critical particle of data to aid in the formation of a question, the recorded fact would arrive at the right time and from the right angle spontaneously. In the mournfully objective spaces within her was the worst of a country’s available history. Ten years of disarray and civil war, revenge killings and government sanctioned executions. These were the generalities afforded by cause and effect: the
There was the Muslim woman she had met in Gamurzigol who, having been accused of infidelity against her husband, was arrested by security police and brought to the basement of the police station. There they tied her to an iron pole and beat her with a length of rubber pipe, insisting she confess and beg repentance from her husband. Her husband, of course, was nowhere to be found. Hiding, most likely, at a house in a nearby village.
This was a small, youngish woman with a jagged scab cutting across her upper and
The police who beat her were young, younger than her, and laughed and mocked her when she flinched. When they saw that she would admit to nothing, one said with a pious rage that seemed affected, not at all a flourish of righteous feeling, “If you won’t confess, you must be punished. You are sentenced to three days of shame.” At that they shaved her head and eyebrows with electric shears, then spray-painted the stubble bright green. Pressing her head against the iron pole, one of the officers asked for the can; on her forehead he sprayed an upside down cross beginning at the widow’s peak and ending at the bridge of the nose. After this they dragged her into the streets and called bystanders to pelt her with stones and rotten food. She was lead to the town square and handcuffed her to an old iron ring embedded in the concrete fountain. There she lay for three days, hardly sleeping, begging for food. No one dared look at her, though no one besides the police stopped to mock her.
This was only one of hundreds of stories.
One night, at her hotel in Azran, there was a knock at her door. Outside there a was line of old people. The mothers and fathers of the disappeared in Nalgazalan. One man, a doctor, wept and let the women hold his shoulders as he described his son’s abduction six months earlier. “He could not have been anyone to them,” he said, “just a bright, happy young man, a computer programmer. Very popular, many friends. There must have been some misunderstanding, he only wanted to keep to himself and raise his family.” One morning without notice he was abducted. Armed men wearing masks and camouflage fatigues
These, Anna knew, were things she would have to exert discipline against, to repress. Certainly Cherkeso was aware of her dispatches, her articles on Moscow’s support
After an hour, she reached what appeared to be the first of many checkpoints. Three armed men waved her car to the side of the road. After checking her papers, they called her out of her car and walked her across the road to a black UAZ Patrio. She would leave her car there, they said; they would drive the rest of the way. A mile further they arrived at a second checkpoint. More armed men. One more joined them in the back seat, an amiable man wearing a round tyubeteika cap. He laid the assault weapon in his lap so the barrel
KYLE COMA-THOMPSON lives in Louisville, KY. His work has appeared in Boston Review, AGNI, Bat City Review, and elsewhere.
IN CONVERSATION with author, Kyle Coma-Thompson.
Q. How did this collection come together?
I wrote one story, then I wrote another. Eventually I had a fair number of them. I could tell there was a thematic pattern running through a couple dozen, a certain tone—so I tossed anything that didn’t fit. Mostly the shorter pieces worked, the longer ones didn’t. I kept cutting stories until the remainder achieved a kind of balance—which is what was left over.
Q. How important is plot in a short story?
I would say plot is always present in a story, it just depends whether it is explicitly or implicitly evoked. In the latter case, the context for a piece of dialogue, for some bit of action or description, is implied, and usually made more vivid by its absence. There’s often as much plot in a Lydia Davis story as in any longer, more naturalistic piece of fiction. It’s just hidden off in the white space of the page.
Q. That’s a nice image. Is that a personal minimalistic approach you consciously take? And if so, do you ever worry that the reader won’t shoulder the responsibility of filling in those spaces?
I wouldn’t characterize it as a matter of responsibility. And I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly minimalist strategy: the patterns of what’s left unsaid or implied in a story can be maximalist in their own right. If a piece of writing reaches a certain density, hopefully it achieves a blurring between different tonal registers—the sentences and paragraphs generating cross-patterns of resonance, some in tune with each other, others setting off little measures of dissonance. I’d say if managed with the right amount of subtlety, this wouldn’t be a drag to read, it’d be pleasurable. The story would draw more and more on that kinetic part of a reader’s intuition—all these halfling elements linking up and breaking apart as a reader moves through them. Besides, it’s more interesting to watch somebody suspend a feather in mid-air with their breath than have them stand there, feather in hand. Even more interesting if it’s a dozen feathers.
Q. When composing a story, do you approach plot as a primary element, or does it take a backseat, so to speak, to the beauty of the sentence?
This varies from story to story. Some pieces I plot out beforehand, others generate their plot sentence by sentence. Really, though, if everything has been sketched out beforehand, the best thing I can do is allow enough time for the details of the plot to be forgotten. That way, the writing of the story is an attempt to remember the initial idea. Inevitably there are deviations from the original—and those always provide the more vital turns and stretches in a story. An ability to forget is one of the most underrated skills: if you could remember everything, there’d be no initial vacuum to pull you into a piece of writing.
Q. Some of these stories, such as Spring in Zurveyta, are based on actual events. If a story has a factual basis, do you believe a writer has certain obligations to render details and events as they occurred?
Yes—but to a point. With a piece of fiction the goal is often to take certain elements and explode them into a fuller view of the events described. To render what isn’t accounted for by more objectivist/documentary accounts. Here’s where the element of risk begins, I think, in the possibility of failing to remain faithful to what’s described; there’s no unassailable way to render actual events through fictional means—there’ll always be something that falls short, that fails the material, but in that failure hopefully there’s more than enough that’s gained, that’s worthwhile. Empathy is a process that progresses by failure anyway, so why play shy?
Q. Often a writer’s first piece of fiction contains a certain amount of autobiographical content. With your collection one has the distinct impression this isn’t the case. Was this a conscious choice on your part?
No. I’m just not particularly interested in my life as a piece of content. Now, as the context in which certain ideas come to light—that’s a different thing entirely.
Q. What is the first story you wrote in this collection, and what was the impulse behind it?
“The Smoke Leper”. I wrote it one afternoon on the sly while on the clock at my job at the time. There was no impulse—it began with the first sentence and ended where it ended; but for the rest of the afternoon I felt spooked by how quickly something could come from nothing.
Q. There are several recurring concerns in the stories. Many seem to be organized according to traditional dichotomies of mind/body, interiority/exteriority, allegory/naturalism. Was this intentional?
No. My guess is: one story prompted certain suppressed ideas in another. And so on and so on. After a couple of years of this I was left with this chain of ideas, none of them too explicitly interested in each other.
Q. There is an interesting quality to the voice in many of the stories. Very intimate, but at the same time filtering all the action and characters through the movements of a detached, roving consciousness. Were you aware of this as a common element among the stories?
To this I’d just say: that’s the way I think. Or the modes of thinking that writing encourages. I’m not particularly aware of it; and if I was, I suppose that’s the moment things would slip into self-caricature.
Q. Your work usually contains interactions between violence, humor, conceptual probing, and the grotesque. What do you hope a reader would come away with from reading these stories?
I’d hope that they’d be engrossed with them. That’s all. If there’s enough energy to carry them from the beginning of the stories to the end, and that they can keep some of that energy, that’s the best thing.
Q. Why are you so drawn to foreign locales?
When I was young, I lived in Ireland. When I moved back to the States, I had a heavy brogue. Since then, thinking and talking in any social context has been a pretty strange activity.
Q. What usually serves as the starting point for a story? An image, an idea, some initial sentence?
All of those, really, and none in particular. Stories usually come from an undefined feeling of possibility or readiness. They usually begin with doodles, writing sentences and deleting them. Then: one catches, and the rest follows suit.
Q. Many of these stories are very short. What was it about the stories that required them to be brief?
Attention spans are not something to be trifled with.
Q. The stories vary—some are structured like allegories, while others realistically. What’s the nature of the relationship between these two approaches?
If there was ever such a thing as a natural law of creativity, I suppose it would be: juxtaposition creates energy.
Q. What are you working on now?
A novel. Stories. And in between, poems.