A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 5 – Pending Vegan, by Jonathan Lethem

The Wyly Theater in the Dallas Arts District

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 4 – Pending Vegan, by Jonathan Lethem
Read it online here:

Pending Vegan, by Jonathan Lethem

And, after the insipid triumphalist overture of music and video and prancing androgynous spandex, when the orcas finally entered the arena and began their leaping, SeaWorld was overwritten by their absolute and devastating presence. By their act of stitching two realms together, sky and water, merely for the delight of a stadium full of children—children who, in response, leaped, too, and vibrated in their seats, and gurgled incoherently, practically speaking in tongues. Other kids, older and more intrepid than his own, raced down to the plastic barrier to be splashed, to stand with their arms flapping. The killer whales, with their Emmett Kelly eyes, were God’s glorious lethal clowns. Their plush muscular bodies were the most unashamed things Pending Vegan had ever seen. Like panda bears redesigned by Albert Speer.

—-Jonathan Lethem, Pending Vegan

A few years ago, my son Lee and I went down to the Dallas Theater Center’s Wyly Theater to see a new musical, The Fortress of Solitude, adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s eponymous novel. It was Pay What You Can Night (pretty much the only way I can see quality live theater on an ongoing basis) – which is cool, though what we saw was essentially a dress rehearsal open to the public. Because of this, there was a bit of confusion and we discovered that our assigned seats weren’t there (the Wyly is infinitely reconfigurable and they had configured our seats out of existence). No problem, the box office had alternate seats which were better anyway (not that the Wyly has any bad seats) – we were placed in a line of vacant seats right up front. Two men sat next to us at the last minute.

The play was excellent, very enjoyable. I never read the novel, so I don’t know if it followed or did justice, but as a night of live musical entertainment, it fit the playbill. As the play ended, the man sitting next to Lee started asking him a series of questions, “Did you like the musical?” “What songs did you like?” – the inquiry seemed more pointed than curious. I looked at the man and at the Playbill folder in my hand and realized this was the author (of the play, not Jonathan Lethem, alas). The idea was to premiere the musical in the hinterlands (Dallas), iron out the rough spots, them move to Off Broadway (Public Theater) then, eventually, to the Great White Way.

It looks like the momentum has stalled and it probably never will make it to Broadway… but at least I saw it.

Today’s story, also by Jonathan Lethem, is a chronicle of a family’s trip to Sea World in San Diego. The protagonist is struggling with a sudden attack of giving a damn about animals and, possibly more importantly, just now coming off his prescription to anti-depressants. His doctor warns him he might, “see bums and pickpockets.” Worried that he might hallucinate, the doctor assures him that he won’t imagine them, he may simply notice them.

I, of course, have been to Sea World (the San Antonio version) with unruly children a couple of times. I dealt with it a little bit differently than the father in the story – I didn’t think about it. It was a day for the kids and all I was responsible for was trying my best they didn’t get eaten by sharks or destroy an expensive exhibit. All other thoughts were put on hold.

For about a quarter century.

—–

In the interview below, Lethem says, “I’d also have trouble imagining a fiction writer who, after visiting the place, wouldn’t start fooling around with story ideas.” When I first read this I disagreed – I couldn’t think of any story ideas from SeaWorld.

Then I remembered seeing the Shamu show one year. The Orca wasn’t in a good mood and basically stayed at the bottom of his tank and refused to do any tricks. He was the male in the pod and the two females were in the lake outside of the arena. They kept surfacing and making these loud sounds. There is no doubt they were laughing at him.

The neoprene-wet-suited show people tried to get on with the act. They even brought a volunteer from the audience out to try and coax him into getting to work. I thought, “Man, if I had a humiliated, cranky, and uncooperative killer whale at the bottom of a tank, the last thing I’d want to do is lean out and wiggle a fish over him.”

Hmmm. I guess that is an idea for a story.

Interview with Jonathan Lethem about this story:

This week’s story, “Pending Vegan,” follows one family, a husband and wife and their four-year-old twin daughters, on a trip to San Diego’s SeaWorld. When did you start thinking about using SeaWorld as the setting for a story? Did you ever consider inventing the theme park and fictionalizing everything, or was it important that the story be set in a real place?

This story really began with a class I taught, called Animals in Literature. I assigned Jack London, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Olaf Stapledon, Lydia Millet, J. R. Ackerley, and a bunch of other stuff, including some essays and theory. (Animals are actually pretty “hot” in theory now.) In the spirit of due diligence, I also read a bunch of animal-rights and vegan manifestos, which is how I blundered into the realm of “Fear of the Animal Planet” and so forth—books I purchased, and which sit staring at me from the shelf, even if I failed to assign them or, in many cases, even to read them. I suppose some of this bad faith leaked into the characters: What would it be to think you’ve gone about halfway, or not even halfway, down some irreversible ethical path, then got stuck there?

Of course all this remained inchoate until suddenly I visited SeaWorld. I can’t imagine anyone setting a story there who hadn’t visited. (I’d also have trouble imagining a fiction writer who, after visiting the place, wouldn’t start fooling around with story ideas.) Long ago, I’d have been certain to disguise it as “Fathomverse,” or “Poseidon’s Playhouse,” or “Orcasm,” or something. But that wouldn’t really be likely to fool anyone, would it? A lot of fiction—most?—derives some of its effects, and energy, from its hybrid nature: half documentary, or half confession or argument or whatever, and full of references outside itself, whether obvious to the reader or not. I’ve made my peace with this. Besides, I’d have had to give up “Sea World, Eat World.”

The story’s protagonist, Paul Espeseth, is going through a crisis of sorts, which he has hidden from both his family and his shrink. He’s renamed himself Pending Vegan as a way of acknowledging his increasing uneasiness with the relationship between man and beast, yet he’s acutely aware of his daughters’ ability to reconcile “their native animal-love and the pleasures of eating.” What’s it like to imagine a child’s version of the animal world versus an adult’s?

Forget “animal world” —what about just “world”? Where’s the script for breaking the news, to a kid, of reality’s roaring wackness? Its moral bankruptcy? Imagine a scene from the breakfast table with a six-year-old listening to an NPR report on the firing of nine air-force commanders over cheating on the tests to qualify as officers for oversight of nuclear missiles.
Six-year-old: “What did they cheat on?”
Father (already in trouble): “Well, see, they were in, like, ‘soldier school’…”
Six-year-old: “Don’t they know it was wrong?”
Father: “———”
Six-year-old: “What are nuclear missiles?”
Father: “———”
Six-year-old: “Why would they cheat? Don’t they want to be good at fighting?”
Father (suddenly impassioned, intense): “Well, actually, the reason this matters so much is that nuclear missiles are these weapons we don’t want anyone ever to use…” (He stops at brink of disaster.)
Six-year old: “—?!?—”
Father: “Uh, eat your pineapple.”
Six-year old: “My teacher told me that pineapple was bad for your skin.”
Father (with relief): “She’s definitely wrong.”

A dog bounds into the story in its final page. It’s not the first time dogs have shown up in your work (“Ava’s Apartment,” for example, an excerpt we published from your novel “Chronic City,” features a memorable three-legged dog). Do dogs hold a particular place in your imagination? Can you imagine a cat exercising as much power?

Cat person or dog person? Funny about that. I grew up with cats; I’m more familiar with them, more fond of them, and I identify with them more. My parents bred Siamese cats for a while, and in a lot of baby pictures I’m seen swimming in a mass of kittens. Dogs were in stories, first: “Nobody’s Boy,” “The Incredible Journey,” Jack London’s and—especially—Albert Payson Terhune’s work. I was probably the last boy in the history of boys to drink deep at the well of “Lad: A Dog” and “His Dog.” Meanwhile, real dogs terrified me. This lasted a while. Even after we got a dog, other people’s dogs terrified me. I was 33clear to me. As in the case of my character, dogs are a problem I can’t solve; they throw me back into the question of self and other. For a writer, that’s good. Writing a story about a cat would be like writing a story about my arm or my ear.

—- Interview with Jonathan Lethem in The New Yorker

The Wyly Theater.

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