It’s hard now to figure out how my tenth-grade English teacher Mr. Martin became trapped working in a high school in suburban Minnesota; he was full of resentment for what he called “sleepy little Stillwater,” actually assigning his classes to make the trek into the city each semester to hang out at poetry readings and art-house movie theaters, in hopes that something hip would rub off. He was one of the first to give us “adult” short stories to read, and for a reason I still haven’t quite figured out but remain grateful for, “Squandering the Blue” by Kate Braverman was one of them. In it, the adult narrator recalls her single, poet mother’s life and death, from bohemian success on the beaches of Mexico to alcoholic ruin in Beverly Hills. The narrator “with the ease of a child, ruthless, without conscience” rejects her mother, seeing her as a liability in the bland, privileged world that she embraces, only as an adult coming to understand her loss.
Braverman switches tenses from line to line, usually for no reason that’s immediately apparent. There’s virtually no direct dialogue, and whole years pass by in montage form. From a workshop standpoint, it’s a nightmare, and I doubt that it’s commonly taught in any writing curriculum. I’m not really sure, frankly, where Mr. Martin dug it up. There are very few stories told this way that actually work. When done correctly, though, the effect is a kind of elevated oral history, with the narrator playing the role of both speaker and recorder. The story, therefore, reads as intensely personal, though its environs are rarefied; the plush, fragile ying cocooned within the exotic and dangerous yang. The proper juxtaposition of those two elements, thanks in no small part to Braverman, remains a goal for which I continue to strive in my own writing; they’re beasts which, when mollified, keep a story engaging, alive.
Notably, the mother in the story is nothing like my own mother, and the narrator only slightly resembles me. Braverman wrote the story in 1986; the references “men with long hair and guitars” that the mother “once a too briefly loved,” led me to suspect that it takes place in the sixties (which, at the time, was itself enough to make it seem deliciously subversive). There was no real “in” to the story for me at all aside from the hypnotism of Braverman’s mood: “a kind of blue, a sea rhythm, perhaps, salt air or waves.” Luckily, at sixteen, I didn’t know I had the right to ask for anything more.
Too often when this is the case in a story, more mature (one might say cynical) readers are quick to dismiss it as unrelatable or unrealistic, and miss its gifts. Since, theoretically, we can’t ever replicate it, it’s not worth of our time. We know ourselves removed from our narrow teenage existences, those “dense with fences and anchors, the routine and predictable,” like the narrator’s life in Beverly Hills. Now we look for something to “relate to.” Who among us can recall having a trust-fund hippie for a mother in Mexico, Japan, Hawaii? Not I, for damn sure – then or now. The only difference is that, then, I didn’t care. I was still close enough to the age when I’d read fantasy series that I hadn’t yet abandoned the belief that the main job of a story was to take me somewhere else. The story ends with the narrator reflecting on what her mother has given her: “I know that whatever is excitable and open in me, all that desires magnitude and grace, this is her legacy.”
Mr. Martin spent time encouraging us to consider the possible definitions of “magnitude” a word we usually hear, these days, in negative contexts (“the magnitude of the disaster,” etc.) But all it really means is extraordinary size; extraordinary importance. It means the daring to be broad, to be big. And as easily as it represents the narrator herself, it represents Braverman’s approach to telling her story. For us now, it represents the peculiar excitement of reading from within the confines of a teenager’s hopelessly narrow existence.