The One Who Gets Wounded
Fortune Smiles: Stories
By Adam Johnson
Random House, 2015
Part way through “Hurricanes Anonymous,” one of the six remarkable stories in Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, a UPS driver known as Nonc working in post-Katrina Louisiana notices that his next stop is his own previous address. When he arrives, he “looks at the package and sees that it is addressed to himself, Randall Richard, from his father.” His surprise feels belated: how could he not have realized earlier that the errand he’s on is a personal one? But like all of the protagonists in Fortune Smiles, Nonc is disoriented in his own life. Entering this abandoned apartment, now strewn with leavings from other transient tenants, he finds himself not restored but estranged:
The mixture of his possessions with a stranger’s isn’t as weird as the fact that these things used to mean something to him. When did he find time to sit on this couch? Did he once know the names of TV shows? He feels like the person who owned that couch is just as much of a stranger as the person whose family photos litter the floor.
Nonc — eking out a new existence, maybe even new meaning, in the ruins of a world made hostile and illegible by catastrophe — literalizes the moral, psychological, emotional, or existential dislocation we encounter in Johnson’s other stories, all of which leave us, like his characters, adrift in uncertainty. Where do we belong? What, or who, makes someplace a home for us? How do we survive its loss, or their loss? What is the truth of our lives? How do we even know who we are? Does love save us or ruin us? Johnson’s strange, haunting stories offer no answers, but there is something oddly reassuring about them nonetheless: to care as deeply as he moves us to is itself some comfort for our shared precarity.
The stories in Fortune Smiles aren’t moving because their protagonists are easily “relatable” — that baleful concept encouraging us to restrict our literary loyalties to those most like us. Rather, we keep company in the collection with an eclectic and often alienating group that includes — along with the hapless Nonc — a futuristic Silicon Valley programmer, an odd couple of North Korean defectors, a pedophile, and a former Stasi prison warden. Yet the emotional effect of the stories arises, over and over, from startling and usually discomfiting moments of recognition: we see our own faces reflected back at us, sometimes when we least expect it, in the winces, shadows, and grimaces of Johnson’s characters.
Hans Bäcker, for instance, the narrator of “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” radically misrepresents his own history, denying his complicity in a regime of ruthless totalitarian oppression. The wretched place he calls “my prison” has become a landmark of what he and a former Stasi colleague scornfully call “atrocity tourism.” “The tour guides forget to mention the fact,” Hans says defensively,
that not a single inmate was ever abused here, let alone tortured. That is because, and here I am not joking despite the grand absurdity of it: the tours are led by the criminals who used to be prisoners here.
The real “absurdity,” though, as we swiftly realize, is Hans’s own attempt to fix as truth the lies he has told himself for years — lies that helped him survive even as they stripped the humanity from his victims. Disguised (or so he thinks) as just another visitor, he takes a tour of the prison led by Berta, one of those former “criminals.” As Berta walks the group through the “facility” as she knew it, it seems impossible that we should feel any sympathy for Hans:
Moving slowly through the wing, Berta goes on and on about her treatment — the lights being forever on, the feeling of isolation, the lack of sleep. She holds up the blue slippers and baggy blue uniform prisoners had to wear. In the hall she makes us walk the prisoner walk: legs wide, hands high behind the back, head bent. She shows us the warning wire along the walls that, when pulled, would summon the immobilization squad.
“Are you sure you’re qualified to lecture on this prison?” Hans irately demands. But when Berta locks him into the cramped cell he initially insists is “not so bad,” his literal situation merges with his metaphysical one and we grasp the repressed pathos of his plight:
The keys are taken from my hand. One thing about these cells is that the light switches are on the outside. I’m reminded of this when everything goes dark. Then I hear the footsteps of everyone walking away. I don’t bother to bang and shout. Berta won’t get that satisfaction from me. I stand and put my hand out into the dark. Even though I have these rooms memorized, I trip on something and almost go down. . . . How did this come to pass? What parade of indignities led to being locked alone in my own prison?
Even as he stands in the “U-boat,” the water cell (where, Berta recounts, prisoners were left standing “naked in the dark, ankle-deep in cold water, for how long — how many days, a week, two?”) Hans cannot let the real truth surface: the completeness of his psychic resistance is as chilling as the room.
Or is it? Hans challenges Berta to face his truth, committing himself to the U-boat, stripping off his clothes, but with them it seems he also loses the layers that insulate him from his own guilt. In this horrible, pathetic old man, standing in his underwear as an “icy blast of rusted water” strikes his body like the harsh reality he tries to disown, can’t we detect a grimmer version of our own efforts to rewrite the past in our own favor, our ability to deny painful truths about ourselves that seem obvious — perhaps even unbearable — to those around us, even those who love us? On an earlier visit to the prison Hans noticed for the first time that his former office “is the exact size and shape of an inmate’s cell.” How many of us, like Hans, are in prisons of our own making? Which of us is entirely free from such saving — or destroying — self-deceptions?
If identifying, however reluctantly or remotely, with Hans Bäcker, is unsettling, how much more disturbing is it to find a sympathetic connection with Mr. Roses, the narrator of “Dark Meadow”? Through this protagonist, Johnson brings us into the morally obscene world of child pornography:
On her face is fear, and the wide-eyed certainty of what will happen next, laced with perhaps a glint of hope that she can spare herself in some way from the unknown bad thing that is about to begin. Then I see her arm is blurred, that it’s lifting — to fend something off, to latch on to an adult for security, or is the arm lifting on its own, the way arms lift involuntarily when something horrible is encountered.
This was once Mr. Roses’ world, but no more — except he hasn’t really left, he can’t really leave, not just because of the work he does and the connections he has but because it’s the world of his own deepest desires:
The image of that girl has me completely fucked up. Everywhere I look, there she is. . . . And the most fucked-up and wrong and horrible part is that I activate. It kills me to masturbate, to stand there at the bathroom sink and jerk off into the basin — when I close my eyes, I see her; when I open them, there in the mirror is myself — but it’s the only thing that will make it stop.
In this story, as in Hans Bäcker’s, complicity and denial are darkly intertwined. “You have to understand,” Mr. Roses insists, “that I have never hurt anyone in my life and that I am the one who gets wounded in this story.” “I’ve done some bad things,” he later tells “the Tiger,” his 12-year-old neighbor who with her little sister has turned to Mr. Roses — innocently, ironically — for help. “But I’ve never hurt anyone,” he assures her; “Not directly, not me doing the actual hurting.”
The guilt from which Mr. Roses seeks to absolve himself seems worse, his culpability greater, than that represented by the U-boat: these are children, after all. But Mr. Roses himself has a terrible history, which is why he cries as he masturbates to the image of the young girl,
because she knows what’s going to happen, she knows it can’t be stopped, and even though you know what’s ahead, it still comes as a surprise when, after a day of sailing, after the Skipper has doled out performance ribbons to your Sea Scouts troop and you’ve been having fun and there’s a sense of wonder and achievement after rounding the tip of Catalina Island, and despite all the times it has happened before, it takes you by surprise when the Skipper comes for you in the dark and you’re taken down to the storage cabin, with the musty smell of sail canvas and the petroleum bit of foul-weather gear. Atop a mound of the other boys’ dirty laundry is where he forces you down. The anchor chain pulls taut against the hull, and there is no light beyond the pale glow of the bilge-pump sensor, no sound beyond the scratch of his razor stubble against the back of your neck and the cinch of his hands as he grips the straps of your life vest.
The slippage from third into second person holds us up, as it holds him up, on the brink of his own first-person experience of traumatic abuse and exploitation. Suddenly, it isn’t quite as easy to judge him, especially as we see his painstaking efforts to crop out of his life the horrors he crops from the images stored on his computer:
I trim and trim, narrowing in until there is only blur. You wouldn’t even know it was a hand. Then I destroy the original. In this way, I cripple the picture’s power to hurt — it’s not child pornography, it’s not pornography, it’s not even a child. I remove what racks you, what leaves you unable to raise yourself from the bottom of the boat.
Mr. Roses, desperately trying to blur his crimes and his suffering into forgivable abstractions, is an extreme case, and a deeply troubling one, but we can still see in his particular story the outline of a familiar universal struggle: to choose good over evil, kindness and love over cruelty and exploitation. In Mr. Roses’s efforts to be a man, not a monster, there is something fundamentally human. Both he and Hans Bäcker are outliers, but they are not aliens.
Not all of the people or stories in Fortune Smiles take us so far to the limits of either morality or sympathy, but they all shake up our assumptions about how we know or decide who we are, especially under circumstances that render the usual pat answers inadequate. In “Nirvana,” the narrator’s wife Charlotte is immobilized from the neck down by Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Stricken by grief and loneliness, the narrator has found strange consolation in his own creation: a 3-D hologram of the recently assassinated President that talks in lines algorithmically prompted from his recorded speeches and interviews. “It’s time to accept reality,” Charlotte chastises him: “He’s gone. When your time comes, you’re supposed to fall silent.” But she takes virtual comfort in her own way, immersing herself in the music of Nirvana (“whose songs,” her husband points out, “are by a guy who blew his brains out”), and by the end of the story Charlotte is entranced and transported by the projection of Kurt Cobain he has created for her:
Charlotte looks at me, filled with wonder. “I thought he was gone,” she says. “I can’t believe he’s really here.”
Kurt shrugs. “I only appreciate things when they’re gone,” he says.
Charlotte looks stricken. “I recognize that line,” she says to me. “That’s a line from his suicide note.
What Charlotte’s husband really wants is to hold on to her, to keep her forever: “I’m not an idiot. I know what’s really being stolen from me, slowly and irrevocably, before my eyes.” The technological gimmickry of the story opens the door to satire (his boss SJ dreams of marketing his “seamlessly integrated data interface” to “average people” who would “bring their personalities to life, to speak for themselves, to customize and personalize how they’re seen by the world”) but it also lets in the enormous pathos of the reality that is not virtual, in which nothing truly alleviates the mournful yearning to be “in proximity to something that’s lost to you.”
In “Interesting Facts,” it’s illness again that has revealed the fissures in the seemingly-solid structures of an ordinary life, an ordinary marriage. Here it’s the narrator herself who’s stricken: the literal threat of her cancer, however, recedes in significance compared to the loss of control she fears over her own story. “That’s my story. It belongs to me!” she shouts at her husband when she catches him typing “Toucan cereal” into his word processor. (“Interesting fact: Cancer teaches you to see the insides of things. Do you see the can in uncanny or the cer in concern?”) Her possessiveness is understandable: not only is it the story of her experience, but she is an unpublished novelist, while her husband is a writer who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel about North Korea.
In fact, we quickly realize, “Interesting Facts” is narrated by a close approximation of Johnson’s own wife (who had, but recovered from, breast cancer) — which means, of course, that the story she tells in “Interesting Facts” is his story of her story. And Johnson’s story begins with just those words, her words (or are they really his?): “Interesting fact: Toucan cereal bedspread to my plunge and deliver.” (“It’s okay if you can’t make sense of that,” she helpfully adds after that cryptic observation; “I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t grasp it either.”) “You tell me who the fucking ghost is,” his wife says bitterly, in his story about her. “Interesting Facts” makes us wonder whether — as we read his telling of her telling of her fear that, in the end, all she’ll be to her children is “a story from when they were little” — we too have become complicit in ensuring her worst fear comes to pass. But isn’t telling someone else’s story an act of love, another way of keeping them “in proximity” to us?
The metafictional layering of “Interesting Facts” is unusual in a collection marked less by formal innovation or experimentation and more by the ingenuity of its scenarios and the intensity of its emotional impact. (“Interesting Facts” also contains the volume’s only other conspicuously clever intertextual move: in one of her unpublished novels, its narrator has created two girls who live next door to a sexual predator named Mr. Roses: “my husband . . . was really helpful in developing Mr. Roses’ backstory,” she observes, “and generating his dialog. Then my husband stole this character and wrote a story from Mr. Roses’ perspective called “Dark Meadow.”) Overall, these are stories that, despite the pressing modernity of their topics and settings, are in that respect old-fashioned, testimonials to the power of voice and character and story.
Much of their power also arises from Johnson’s preternatural instinct for details that make you wince or ache. In “Nirvana,” for instance, the tragedy of paralysis is unthinkably heightened by a smaller inescapable horror:
While I’m in the garage, Charlotte watches a spider slowly descend from the ceiling on a single thread. She tries to blow it away. She blows and blows, but the spider disappears into her hair.
Many lines seem innocuous enough at first but then linger uneasily in your mind. “The proper light,” says Mr. Roses as he gardens at night by the beam of his headlamp, “can cast no shadow” — and then we wonder in what other, more sinister context this expertise might apply. The aftertaste of the language is not always bitter: sometimes it’s philosophical, as when Mina, in the eponymous “Fortune Smiles,” reflects on her inability to stop searching for the husband she has followed to Seoul. Every day she plays her accordion in the subway, checking every passerby in case one of them is him. “The funny thing is,” she tells her fellow defector DJ,
“no one here knows me. I don’t have to be that person.”
“Quit looking for him, then. Quit playing the subways.”
“But then who would I be?” she asked.
But the stories aren’t always so serious: like Johnson’s brilliant novel The Orphan Master’s Son, they combine satire, pathos, suspense, and outright comedy, so our questions will as often be about whether we should laugh or cry, shudder or sympathize: typically, in Johnson’s strange, disorienting world, the answer is both at once. As a result, his stories don’t offer any cathartic release for the often traumatic situations they draw us into. This is not feel-good fiction: the only uplifting thing about it is how good it is — how imaginative, how acute, how ruthless, how tender. In that creativity lies the only consoling promise Johnson makes us, and that only implicitly: that we are united in the isolated idiosyncrasy of being human, and in our ability to think, feel, and tell stories about it.
Rohan Maitzen teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.