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Reader Response: The Third Dumpster (Jen Gish)

In The Third Dumpster, Gish Jen uses the contrast of dialogue and thought—direct method—to provide complexity to her characters, which in turn makes them interesting. Goodwin and Morehouse Lee are unemployed, ex-contractor brothers doing their best to fix up an extremely run-down house that they acquired for free so that their parents might have a more easily navigable home to live in. An important theme that keeps this story moving forward is the fact that the Lees are a Chinese family, and despite the parents having lived in America for 50+ years, the Chinese traditions are still extremely important to them.

This detail provides the motivation for the story itself, as the Lee brothers had attempted to fix their parents up in an old folk’s home but were unsuccessful due to the “Western food,” which provided enough of a reason for the Lee parents to decline the option. With this premise at the forefront, the Lee brothers appear to be extremely patient and loving children who will stop at nothing to give their parents the comfort and safety of a new, ranch-style home. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear through a number of thoughts presented that these boys aren’t as angelic as they first seem to be.

By the second page, suspicions are definitely aroused about the boys’ mission. Despite being in a recession, one that has clearly affected them personally, they are still moving forward with the house flipping process, even stooping to the level of illegally dumping asbestos-ridden debris into a dumpster that belongs to another construction site. They hire illegal Guatemalans for cheap labor, endangering their health. They complete the electrical wiring of the house without being certified in that department, hinting that their parents might not really be that safe in their new house.

At one point the question is posed from brother to brother, “What choice do we have?” On the last page of the story, the answer is given in a thought that neither son will speak, “you guys could come live with me.” Leading up to this point, Jen has done a clean job of depicting reasons why the Lee brothers would not want to extend this offer to their parents; for example, the berating imaginary dialogue filled with disapproval from their parents. It seems both boys have struggled to escape this treatment in their adult lives and perhaps had successfully done so until their parents’ age became an unavoidable issue.

Even in the last couple paragraphs of the story, Jen contrasts Morehouse’s thoughts with the dialogue he might have with his mother, “nodding and nodding” at her remarks, “even as he went on building.” While there is a lot more to analyze within this story, I think it is a great example of using contrasting thought vs. dialogue to create complex characters, difficult situations, and a very believable conundrum for the family presented.

 

Word Count: 485

I Refuse to be as Redundant as the Moon: A Found Poem

I’m frozen, I’ve just been dumped

here inside my alphabet, I’m shackled

to it and asking myself some questions.

 

It’s in the area of this invisible lake that I’ll set my story.

 

Nothing feeds my soul any more:

no starry night transmutes my desert

into sheets of shadow and mystery.

 

My story is interrupted because I don’t know the first word of the next episode.

 

I must struggle like someone drowning,

even if I die in the end, roaring and chanting

the name of the woman I love. Only I,

her author, love her. I suffer for her.

As long as I have questions and no answers,

I’ll keep on writing. The silence is such

that not even thought thinks.

My God, I just remembered that we die.

 

My wish is complicated by the fact that I long to do something original.

 

Strategy #7: Take Control.

Did the fellow suppose he was made of paper?

One cannot write those words too often: I do

not know. This story I am telling is all in my imagination.

Grounds enclosed by a sharp fence that marks

the boundary between what’s unpredictable

and what is locked up. I risk everything

when I admit why I’m hesitating.

 

I can barely keep from writing with both hands at once, so I’ll think less.

 

From now on I’m exempt from acting

coherently and released once and for all

from making a success of my life.

My double life. A night love with you.

A readership that will never be anything more

than the multiplication of your eyes.

 

I’ve been aging at a terrifying speed. But he must take his place, he must fit himself.

 

You confuse what’s important with what’s impressive.

To commit suicide everywhere, with no respite – that

is my mission. Then darkness rolled up again,

the darkness that is primeval but not eternal,

and yields to its own painful dawn.

 

He had accomplished an act of creation, and as he did so Death turned her head away.

Reader Response: Chapter Two (Antonya Nelson)

In an effort to better understand power struggle, crisis, and resolution within others’ work and my own, I am going to work to identify these elements in Antonya Nelson’s Chapter Two. Disclaimer: I may not fully get there in 500 words.

The foreground of this story provides Hil, a woman who routinely attends A.A. meetings despite the fact that she is not following the program. One of Hil’s peculiarities is that when it is her turn to share at meetings, she deflects by telling stories about a Waspish, perpetually drunk, older woman who lives in her neighborhood, named Bergeron Love. Within this structure, I see two power struggles; Hil feels powerful by talking about Bergeron rather than reflecting on her insubordination of the program, effectively continuing her streak of rebellion, and Bergeron holds a power over Hil by embracing her alcoholism unabashedly. It is probably because Hil is jealous of Bergeron’s open affair with alcohol that she berates her to different A.A. groups, neighbors, and family members, even when Bergeron is deceased.

Hil implies a surface crisis to the story, being that Bergeron is frequently intrusive, inappropriate and belligerent. Hil’s words and actions imply a different crisis, especially considering that she seems to enjoy Bergeron’s evening intrusion, and her story-telling tone is of a humorous nature. The crisis then, would perhaps be that Hil is struggling with where she wants to fall on the spectrum of ‘relationship with alcohol.’ Bergeron represents an extreme that seems to appeal to an inner desire of Hil’s. Hil herself choses to drink at what seems like a moderate level, though she goes through the A.A. meetings that correspond with people who, one would imagine, are trying to be sober. Hil seems to be focusing on the mini-crises of her neighbor in order to avoid the large crisis occurring in her own life.

An important stake that is brought to light would be the well-being of Hil’s son, Jeremy. It is also presumed that Hil has a job and helps her food-addict roommate Janine pay rent or a mortgage. Another element of this story would be Hil’s desire not to be “defined” by her “overwhelming weakness”—her addiction to drink. This desire then feeds into the power struggles and crises.

My amateur mind cannot come to a complete conclusion about the resolution of this story. Assuming the ideas that I identified as the power struggle(s) and crisis are in the realm of accurate, I find two ways to read the ending of Chapter Two. Either Hil’s recollection of Bergeron’s pitiful son trying to call his mother back into their house when she is on a drunken spree convinces her that she doesn’t want that for herself and her own son, and she therefore resolves to not become Bergeron—or, mainly influenced by mention of a pub on the route to/from her new A.A. meeting spot, Hil is having some sort of shared experience with Bergeron in the last sentence of the story.

Reader Response: The Chair (David Means)

In David Means’ The Chair, readers learn about Bob Allison, his wife, Sharon, and their son, Gunner (along with an assortment of minor parent characters) through the thoughts of Bob Allison, himself. Bob seems to be an earnest, passionate man, a loving father, an intelligent being, and a worrier. Sharon is portrayed by her husband as a beautiful woman, a workaholic, and a liar, potentially having an affair with another man or just with the city of Manhattan. There is a sense that she is the family realist while Bob is the dreamer, which may or may not be a product of his occupation as a stay-at-home father. Gunner seems to function as both a source and recipient of his father’s love, as well as philosophical prompting device, and, potentially, a wedge driving between the stability of his parents, as separates and individuals.

Each character has a very distinct function in this story, driving the “plot” forward. On the forefront, there is Gunner who is literally forcing his father to chase after him as he daringly heads towards a retaining wall in their back yard. In this scene, there are also the birds that seem to prompt both Gunner and Bob to observe and think certain things according to their sounds and movements.

In another storyline that overlaps Gunner and Bob’s outdoor excursion, Bob procures multiple scenes that revolve around his wife’s movements to and from the city of Manhattan. Her commute, which involves driving and taking the train, is discussed. Her tendency to arrive home after the expected time, as of late, is mentioned in a way that is simultaneously expected and untraditional; it seems, throughout the rest of the story, that Bob is less fearful of his wife cheating on him with another man than he is jealous of her “grown-up” world in the city that he is not a part of. It is implied, through Bob’s deep understanding (verging on recollection) of life in the city, that perhaps he was forced to sacrifice his own career and world in Manhattan with the arrival of his son. Sharon is portrayed as a woman who was not willing to stop working to raise her child, and Bob assumes a life of martyrdom, “willing” to raise Gunner, but obviously unfulfilled at times, as seen in his imagining following Sharon to work.

I think the use of movement throughout this story is extremely well executed. Not only is it functioning on multiple levels, but also it is so well intertwined with the characters that Means has created a very realistic slice of how the momentum of life can quickly pull a person into a life that they never imagined, and somehow also in slow-motion. There are contradictory paces being presented at once with the layering of actions and thoughts and imagination that really encompasses the complexity of the moment when you realize that this is your life; your son’s life. I wish I had more room to talk about this one.

Reader Response: Train (Alice Munro)

Alice Munro’s Train is not a story that lends itself easily to summary, or quick understanding, for that matter.  I am honestly having a difficult time formulating what I would want to stay about this story, predominantly because I can’t pinpoint the role of the war within it.  I am accustomed to analyzing the role of war within any story as the main point of concern and source of change, but I feel like that is completely overshadowed by the theme of sexual abuse or sexuality in general.  I can’t seem to connect how the war-forged parts of this story might tie into the sexually motivated parts, aside from the fact that both war and rape are acts that can involve a person without their consent and radically change a person’s ability to function in the world. This connection also provides, for me at least, an understanding of why Munro spent so long getting the reader of Train involved in the life that Jackson builds with Belle before taking it away with no reward or logical explanation. It was extremely jarring and unpleasant to be waiting for the story to pay off—or at least continue on the same tracks it was headed down—only to have it abandon you and bombard you with a new, unmentioned, unrelated story. If Munro was attempting to write a story whose form mimics the content in the sense that we, as people, don’t always get to choose or end up with what we want, I feel she succeeded.

I also particularly liked the characterizations of the creepy Mennonites and of Belle. Regarding the former, the Mennonites were a haunting collective from the first moment that they were mentioned, and their presence in the area that Belle was living in gave a very The Village-esque feel to the setting. This feeling stuck with me throughout the story and did a really good job of keeping the eerie tone that I think Munro wanted the reader to feel to better relate or react to Jackson and Belle in the end. Belle was an overtly interesting character as well. A lot of description went into her history and her present, down to the fact that the majority of the story took place in her house. In this way, the reader was almost misdirected away from thinking about Jackson and Jackson’s odd choices throughout the story, which also helps exaggerate the impact of later messages.

Train was a very stimulating, almost puzzle-like tale to read. I can’t help feeling like there are a hundred things I missed as a first read-through, which I enjoy in a short story for the satisfaction of going back and figuring it out.

Reader Response: Malaria (Michael Byers)

Michael Byers opens Malaria with a swath of indirect character presentation via exposition through the eyes of the narrator, Orlando. He quickly summarizes himself and his then-girlfriend, Nora Vardon—including what he thinks their outward and inward appearances are like, what they are generally doing in life, who they hang out with, and how they associate with one another. The effect of this information is that we expect a change in their love story (or anti-love story) to unfold in the coming pages and we expect it to include some significant presence of either the Vardon family’s “depressives and schizophrenics” or Orlando’s “bunch of drunks, mainly the men on [his] father’s side.” While the story unfolds with the former, the latter is still of importance. The author has created longevity to the characters; what might yet befall Nora and George, or Orlando, who is poised as the next man in a line of alcoholics, beyond the confines of this story? With that in mind, I find it interesting that the first line of direct dialogue is from Orlando himself, regarding his name saying, “They wanted me to be different.”

While Byers uses summary and indirect dialogue to great effect, from a reader’s perspective there is a clear change in attention when he begins using direct dialogue. There is a lot of thought-provoking banter between Mrs. Vardon, Nora and Orlando that circles around racial identity. The resulting conversation allows a reader to interpret the perceived intellectual levels of the characters, but also brings in some very important ideas about “othering” and “sadness” and “problems,” that interacts with the rest of the text in very peculiar ways considering that son and brother George Vardon is diagnosed with schizophrenia within the story.

There is a skillful manipulation of indirect and direct dialogue throughout this story that allows the reader to draw their own opinions and ideas of and about each character presented, and procure a sense of empathy or sympathy for each one. Because of these direct glimpses we are given of the characters that beacon the story, there is no real need to question Orlando despite the vast amount of exposition that comes from his point of view. I think this allows for a greater connection between Orlando and the reader, which is important because of the nature of what “changes” or “goes wrong” within this story. That slightly sick feeling that Orlando seems to have over George’s long-passed Malaria comment is more easily understood because we were there (through direct dialogue) in the key moments that produced those feelings.

Aside from the use of direct and indirect method, it was an intriguing experience for me to be able to see how mental health issues can seriously affect the people that are surrounded by those who have them. Somehow it stripped away a level of loneliness and perhaps even added a level of bonding that I would not have imagined had I not read this story.

READER RESPONSE: REFERENTIAL (LORRIE MOORE)

While Referential has all the potential to be an impactful short story, I feel that Lorrie Moore made some language choices that lessened the experience of what the piece could have been. Perhaps it is a lack of knowledge and understanding on my part that allows me to point out the following, what I consider “missteps,” and which case I suppose there is a bigger problem afoot; however, I am going to shamelessly volunteer the things that interrupted my experience of what could have been an incredible story.

Just when I was settling into the story, the first of a series of off-putting references, similes, and metaphors happened at the end of the first paragraph, which was the following description: “The jars were arranged by color… as if they contained the urine tests of an increasingly ill person.” There is potential here for beauty or even a better medically-centered description (one that speaks to mental decay rather than physical) but this seems more fitting for a story in which a character is suffering from kidney failure or cancer. It did nothing to emphasize what the child was missing out on by not receiving the jams, nor did it relate to his plight.

While I liked the imagery of “the words ‘peace’ and ‘fuck’ [carved] into picnic tables and tress, the ‘C’ three-quarters of a square” because the detail of the “C” in such graffiti is true yet rarely made a spectacle of, this line was the third successive description using figurative language to refer to the scars on the son’s arms. This was preceded by the mother figure thinking that the scars “sometimes seemed to spell out Pete’s name, the loss of fathers etched primitively in an algebra of skin” and the scars depicted as “white webbed lines” that somehow get tied into the campground graffiti simile. These back-to-back descriptions resulted in a long-winded heap that I did not find striking or helpful when reading the story. On its own, the idea about Pete and the loss of fathers is very complex, being that Pete is not the child’s biological father, and one could argue that a father-figure’s presence in the child’s life is unplanned—how could anything have been pre-etched into self-made scars? While I can venture at what Moore was hoping to accomplish in all of this, it could have been presented far more effectively.

Adding to the hard-to-swallow, was the over-swallowed. Looming storms, stabbing tears, mirrors, pictures of memories past, phantom callers and a relationship on the rocks—not even the à la carte version, the full meal with probable cheating included—all detracted from my feelings for this story. The only thing that made me question my understanding of the entirety of the seemingly confusing choices in language throughout was the “monkey’s paw” reference at the end of the story that appeared to hearken back to an Edgar Allen Poe story I read over a decade ago. I’m still not convinced it isn’t a coincidence.

Reader Response: Miss Lora (Junot Diaz)

There is an important ambiguity in the first sentence of Miss Lora that is most easily spotted by the glaring question mark with which it ends, but the uncertainty extends far beyond the obvious signifier.

“Years later, you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother, would you have done it?”

From the content of this question alone, Díaz creates the base upon which a story is built that invites a variety of intellectual levels and personal connections to find what they might within. A first read of Miss Lora provides countless images that adhere to the reader’s memory, be it from personal association, surprise, fear, excitement, distaste or some other unforgettable connection—the language of the piece is powerful and commands one’s attention so that even a non-Spanish-comprehending reader understands the impact, if not the meaning, of the foreign words that Díaz integrates throughout. With so many ambiguous, relatable subjects available—sex, teen pregnancy, education, poverty, disadvantage, cancer, war, death—readers might miss the potential implications of the very first sentence of the story.

Narrator Yunior’s self-analytical “would you have done it?” prompts a small, anecdotal reflection about the woman for whom the story is named, which precedes the more comprehensive story placing Miss Lora within the context of his world. Regarding Miss Lora, Yunior’s now deceased brother, Rafa, had once said “I’d fuck her;” this is dually important as it provides a potential stamp of approval for Yunior’s ultimately sexual relationship with Miss Lora and allows a sliver of someone he loves to continue existing through his decision to engage in the tryst.

There is also an aspect of the opening question that implicates Miss Lora’s motivations for seducing the narrator, which is bolstered by details scattered throughout. “You know you look like your brother,” Miss Lora tells Yunior after they have sex. “She is always trying to get you to talk about your brother,” Yunior says of Miss Lora, who “goes right for [Rafa’s] boxing gloves” when she is staying with Yunior at his house; “she pushes them into her face, smelling them,” which is something that a person does when they miss or enjoy a smell, indicating that Miss Lora knew Rafa’s scent. The reader furthermore learns that Rafa had been sleeping with another older woman from the boys’ neighborhood, and the possibility is apparent that Rafa may have been involved with Miss Lora before he died.

“Years later, you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother, would you have done it?”

Is the narrator asking himself this question from the perspective in which he had forged a connection that allowed him to keep Rafa alive? Or is he wondering if he would have had the opportunity to be involved with Miss Lora if he had never had a brother at all?

Miss Lora can be read, accepted, and rejected by a reader in so many ways—it feels as though I would never read it the same way twice.

The First Seven Years of My Life: Events I

This post is working off of a prompt from Janet Burroway’s “Writing Fiction,” a book that I am currently studying for my creative writing fiction class.  The idea is to write out what I recall of the first seven years of my life, fitting into the categories of events, people, self, inner life, and characteristic things.  These will then potentially provide springboards for character, plot, and scene development in future fiction endeavors.  I am beginning with Events, though there is some bleeding into people thus far, which is OK because I am sure I will have other areas of focus when I come to the people category.  For now, I am just letting this exercise ride and writing whatever comes to mind.  Here is what I’ve got so far:

I was born on August 27, 1990. My birth certificate shows I was birthed by Theresa, but she prefers the termed “delivered,” and I use it dutifully when speaking to her about the act; it’s the least I can do for a woman who has experienced that pain four times over. I don’t know how my father feels about the term, but his name is Glen. He’s a doctor, so he probably has some fancy word for the whole ordeal and thinks of it in a way that resembles a Darwinian finch drawing, with every aspect pointed out by a very straight line and labeled with some Latin word that to anyone else would seem very remote from the idea of bringing a baby into the world. From a “Me”-project that I completed with the help of my parents around the age of six or seven, I can remember that I was born at Norwalk Hospital, about 10 minutes after midnight. From my various prodding—trying to figure out what might possibly make me interesting—I can recall being told that I was a late baby and did not cry or scream when I was born, like most healthy babies do. I simply looked around, wide-eyed, at whomever removed me from my cozy confines. I still prefer the warmth, comfort and safety of a bath, shower, or a swaddling of blankets over the company of people and the “great world” beyond. I was told that I was brought back to the hospital not long after I was released as a newborn because I was sick; I don’t remember what I was sick with, or if my silent birth was related in any way.

Though I know that I spent the first four years of my life in a house on Merrimack Drive, my recollections are all external to the interior of that house, as if my small brain knew that society valued exteriors and interpersonal relationships and the possessions of others more than the things one has and who one is inside, therefore only cataloguing memories that agreed with this system of superficiality. I can still see the exteriors of five houses in this first neighborhood of my first seven years.

The first is my own, or so I believe. I see a small, yellow house with a large lot made almost entirely of fallen leaves. A faded blacktop driveway comes equipped with an in-ground steel pole, slightly curved at the top with a worn-looking, yellowed basketball hoop and backboard. Each time I try to place the driveway in relation to the house, my mind rejects the location and distorts the image—as if I were trying to place a pre-determined piece of furniture in a video game within a space of three blocks, when the graphic needs four to stick. In this vision of my first house, there is always a large white septic tank being replaced in the ground, but I never see who is doing the work or what the process looks like.

The second house was straight across from our front door. The driveway sloped down and the lot gave their espresso and syrup-colored fortress the look of being completely buried underground (save the roof) when looking at it from my own flat lot, with its pale house. I have one memory of the inside of the house, which is dimly lit. My older brother Luke and I are riding plastic tricycles down a long stretch of hallway with AnaÍce and MattÍas, the children who lived in the exotic, chocolate house. I can barely see anyone’s face for how little light there is.

I believe the white house up on the hill to have belonged to the DaFeo’s, one of whom I remember was called Dave, a boy who played with us sometimes despite being a few years our senior. I recall being in a small bedroom of that house, like a ship cabin with a few unnaturally high and pill-shaped windows, that showcased a clear water-bed, filled with small goldfish and flanked with two, small, unvarnished light-wood nightstands. I remember disliking the motion of the bed and abandoning ship, while the other kids flailed and scrambled on it, laughing. I also associate the DaFeo’s house with a fire-truck-red, rolling tool chest. It was one of the metal ones with a number of skinny, one-pull draws lining its chest and a yellow decal plastered artfully on the front, though I can’t remember what the decal said and must have never gotten tall enough to see the top of the chest because I cannot recall it either. Perhaps I did grow tall enough but found the top of the contraption far less interesting than the rest of it, because I believe that the DaFeo family gave us this tool station and that I grew up with it in my second childhood home; I have memories of it in the garage of the house on Puritan Road, where I lived until I was thirteen.

I should mention at this point that the three houses I’m detailing last, the DaFeo’s, the Wilson’s and Emily G’s house, were not on my street exactly. They were situated on a cul-de-sac street (just beyond my house on the opposite side of the road) that had a majestic name that invoked mental images of fields and sunsets. I believe it was Goldenrod Drive or Circle or the like. We didn’t spend much time at or inside Emily’s house though she was a dear friend to me as a tot. Her house was yellow as well, and as flat-fronted as we were. Her dainty, ballerina-like bedroom had a front-facing window and a precious jewelry box on a beautiful dresser that I remember being excited to peer into. Opposing the constricted, picturesque, perfectionist nature of the G’s house was the Wilson’s, home to Morgan, MacKenzie, and Mrs. Wilson, who let us call her Andrea. I know Andrea was married but I don’t remember seeing her husband very often. I feel like he had a dark moustache, but what do I know? I know that their large house was a dark denim color with an array of burnt sienna decking out back. I remember the decking well because Luke, Emily, Morgan, MacKenzie and I used to buckle one another in to a stroller and push the stroller off the 2-5 inch deck drop-off after pushing the rider as fast as we possibly could across the stretch of smooth, painted planks. I don’t believe that we came up with this brilliant game with even a sliver of malicious intent or a shred of the thought that we could get hurt—for heaven’s sake, we even buckled the rider in! No, no. I remember clearly that we tried to explain to a very frazzled Andrea just how much FUN it was to be the rider without the vocabularical expanse to describe it; it felt like flying. The speed and the crisp whip of the air and the lack of control were invigorating. We all wanted as many turns as we could get.

There was a sturdy hammock tied up between a couple trees behind the Wilson’s house as well. Constantly searching for a rush, we three and four year-olds invented another game in which we would allow one rider to hold on for dear life as the others pushed the hammock back and forth until there was enough momentum built up to flip the rider, who would cling to the hammock like a burr to a web of shoelaces, to experience the thrill of seeing the world upside down. This was another motion-based game I recall disliking, like playing pirates on the waterbed. When I arced on the hammock, I immediately let go and allowed myself to drop to the ground, disliking the sensation of spinning. In the surprise of my impact with the ground, I had swallowed the gum I had been chewing and quickly learned from the Wilson sisters that “gum doesn’t go away for SEVEN YEARS inside you.” The thought made me so nervous that I must have gone home with a belly ache and told my Mom what happened because I remember that we had to sneak around to play the hammock game from that day on, one of us standing sentinel towards the Wilson’s second story kitchen windows, from which Andrea would check-in on us. I was a designated pusher after the incident with the gum, and as I still “suffer” from motion sickness, I’ve been the “designated”-a-lot-of-things throughout my life.

[To be continued!]

We Haven’t Located Us Yet Pt. 2.

So, here it is, the second half of my creative non-fiction researched essay that I wrote this semester, I hope you enjoy it and maybe even learn a little something  :)

I began thinking about the various aspects of Anderson’s films that I had mastered and memorized. I started with the element that seemed most obvious to me, the visual. I found an allure in the printed, monogrammed luggage that the Whitman brothers of The Darjeeling Limited tote around. I relished the refined, doll-house quality look of the icing-pink Mendl’s bakery boxes with their flawlessly tied blue ribbons. I wanted to live on the Belafonte, with its quiet library and deep-blue sauna and dreamy “observation bubble.” Through the charming château du Tenenbaum, I found that I simply must have a telephone room under a staircase. Though fantastically awkward, Rushmore’s Max Fischer made me wonder why I hadn’t been in more clubs in high school, or ever wore a red beret. In Moonrise Kingdom, Sam Shakusky’s Scout Master, Ward, has the most picturesque tent interior ever imagined and though I hate camping, I envied the occupant for being able to reside there.

            The characters’ clothing, possessions and living quarters are all decidedly perfect, simple, and easily identifiable, even if they are not necessarily logical to the world outside of the film. While I clearly adore the visual aesthetic, I decided that it alone was not the over-arching reason why I am so enraptured by these films; I next began thinking about the characters of Anderson’s films and realized that the landscape of the worlds they inhabit needs to be perfect.

“I ALWAYS WISHED I WAS AN ORPHAN. MOST OF MY FAVORITE CHARACTERS ARE. I THINK YOUR LIVES ARE MORE SPECIAL.” – SUZY BISHOP, Moonrise Kingdom

Anderson’s characters are incredibly complex, but verbally eloquent. They may never make the right decisions, but they tend to express just the right sentiments, sometimes saying things well-beyond their character’s age or apparent comprehension level. They all have strong personalities, quirks, and issues that only intensify when they interact with one another.

I felt enlightened when I realized that if both the scenery and the characters were well put-together, the movies would be boring; conversely, if both elements were out of order, the films would be impossible to follow. Not only did this illumination solve my questions about the perfection of the visual worlds of Anderson’s films, it pointed me in a much richer direction of discovery and understanding by allowing the characters to come to the foreground by themselves.

            In analyzing each of the characters, I found that there were some that I wanted to emulate, some that I did not relate to, some that I was curious about, and some that I understood. I found that I was not drawn to every single one of the main characters individually, but rather as a unit.

“I WONDER IF THE THREE OF US WOULD’VE BEEN FRIENDS IN REAL LIFE. NOT AS BROTHERS, BUT AS PEOPLE.” – JACK WHITMAN, The Darjeeling Limited

I feel like I belong in all of the unconventional units in each of Anderson’s films, these non-functioning families. As a girl with three brothers, I feel I play a silent role in the Whitman brothers’ spiritual journey. I want to be part of the chaotic Tenenbaum household and wear a fur coat and smoke cigarettes with Margot, as sisters. I see myself in Max Fischer, dreaming of recognition while anchoring myself to only the ventures in which I know I can succeed. Like Sam Shakusky, I have always thrived on my own independence and self-reliance, and been very particular and careful in handing out my trust to others. And in true Steve Zissou form, when my own family felt like a failed endeavor, I selected comrades and created my own artificial family to feel a part of.

            When I fled home in 2008, I spent a couple months sleeping on other people’s pull out sofas or floors or beds until I had my own place. One of the people I stayed with was my best friend Jasmine, and through her I met a variety of vagabonds who eventually inducted me into their circle, which we called “The Tribe.” It was through The Tribe that I first watched The Darjeeling Limited. We all sat together and watched the striking film through a cloud of cigarette smoke and we were glad to have one another. I didn’t miss my parents’ house because I had found a home, and eventually, my new rented space became the hub for all of us to be together.

            “Perhaps because his films are about childhood – literal and prolonged – they are also about family and the need, in the face of familial abandonment, to create communities in its place,” says Devin Oregeron, in an excerpt from his essay about Wes Anderson’s works. This synopsis validated my growing theory about Anderson’s invented families, but it also sparked more questions. If I definitively see myself in these “misguided but lovable individuals that populate his worlds,” what is the piece or element that leads to the fracture of the family unit, and inevitably to the emotional chaos within these characters’ lives? Why is there a lasting inability to function properly, even as adults?

“OBVIOUSLY, WE MADE CERTAIN SACRIFICES AS A RESULT OF HAVING CHILDREN, BUT NO, LORD, NO.” – ROYAL TENENBAUM, The Royal Tenenbaums

All of the characters with siblings either get along with their brothers and sisters or resolve their issues with them in the course of the film. Any characters without brothers and sisters begin, by the end of each film, to solidify the relationships that they’ve been building; the viewer is left with the impression that the character is no longer alone.

If siblings are not the ultimate issue, the parents must be looked at. In many of Anderson’s films, one or both of a main character’s parents are deceased; this restricts the child from resolving any problems they might have had with them, or keeps the child from any guidance that parent could have potentially provided. In the case of Zero’s father figure Gustave H., Max Fischer’s widowed father, the Bishops, the widowed Mrs. Whitman, and the divorced Tenenbaums, the parents are incapable of providing the emotional approval and/or stability that a child requires to transition into a mentally healthy adulthood.

CASE 1: While Gustave H. takes Lobby Boy, Zero, under his wing and eventually shows paternal and affectionate feelings for the orphaned child, he does not assume a mature, adult persona consistently. He flirts with Zero’s love-interest, gets the young couple in life-threatening danger, and places an immense amount of responsibility on Zero’s shoulders throughout their relationship.

CASE 2: Max Fischer attaches himself to a strong-willed, successful business man, Mr. Blume, and consistently lies about his own father’s occupation. Mr. Fischer, a humble barber, obviously lacks the “backbone” that Mr. Blume speaks of in the beginning of the film, when he had captured Max’s attention for the first time. Max’s father is a sedentary man who clearly wants Max to succeed, but he fails to ever implement any serious structure or consequences in Max’s life to help him achieve any of his goals.

CASE 3:Suzy Bishop finds a book on top of her parents’ refrigerator entitled “Coping with the Very Troubled Child.” When her mother becomes aware that she has seen the book she says to her, “Poor Suzy. Why is everything so hard for you?” as if she is completely helpless and lost in the rearing of her own child. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Bishop is fooling around with the local Police Captain, and invests more of her time into sneaking around behind her husband’s back than she does trying to connect with her “troubled” daughter, Suzy.

CASE 4:The Whitman boys travel to a convent in the foothills of the Himalayas in search of their mother, who departed after their father’s death and became a nun. She hadn’t spoken to her sons in over a year, and did not even attend her husband’s funeral. The boys are in need of some consoling and a sense of unity, which they disappointingly never get from their mother throughout the film. In a version of the script for The Darjeeling Limited, Sister Patricia Whitman, says to her sons, “Did I do wrong? I wasn’t ready to be a mother. I regret it.”

CASE 5: One of the three Tenenbaum children is adopted, but all three are declared geniuses. Each one succeeds in fame and finances, aspects of life that people generally hope to succeed in, and they do so from a very young age. It seems that the children have nothing to do but enjoy living, and yet they are all incapable of doing so. Throughout the course of their development, their father, Royal, manipulates Richie, has no affection for Chas, and openly treats Margot as an adopted child — not one of his own.

CASE 6: My father has worked 70+ hour weeks as a doctor for the entirety of my life. As a child, my mother worked as a secretary, and my older brother and I were placed in the care of an at-home nanny during the day. By the time I was five, my mother was still working and pregnant again; she would have a fourth child soon after. My father was often fatigued, and his free time was mainly spent focusing on sports with my older brother. I was a crappy athlete and we never ended up connecting over much.  Lovers since they were teenagers, marriage is my parents’ prison; parenting, their bane.

“YOU KNOW I’M NOT GOOD AT APOLOGIZING, SO I’LL JUST SKIP IT IF IT’S ALL THE SAME TO YOU.” – STEVE ZISSOU, Life Aquatic

I watched and listened to every bit of commentary and interview on every Wes Anderson DVD I owned, and on various online videos. These concepts of the “unorthodox family unit” sank deeply into my thoughts and their general relevance to my life became too clear to deny. I realized that closure is what Wes Anderson’s films momentarily give me. I am “seeking to affirm control over the uncontrollable” within my own life and I am not yet able to cope with the fact that “the order [I] seek is beyond my control.” I choose to repeatedly live in his worlds because they bring healing to the concepts I struggle with in my own. The films don’t end in heartbreaking tragedy; even if people have died and relationships have gone drastically wrong, there is an absolute feeling that these people, these characters, are going to be OK. There is hope for the outsiders, that we may too be OK, even if that form of peace is not what we anticipate.