There’s Something I Want You to Do, by Charles Baxter. New York, New York: Pantheon, February 2015. 240 pages. $24.00, hardcover.
The epigraph from Primo Levi’s The Reawakening sets the stage for Baxter’s latest collection: “Everybody’s moral universe, suitably interpreted, comes to be identified with the sum of his former experiences, and so represents an abridged form of his biography.”
These stories, or “biographies,” pack depth and distance so that they become an accumulation of moments that carry great weight, building up the moral universe Levi references. To try and discuss these stories in terms of plot doesn’t do them justice. Things happen in these stories just as they do in traditional stories, but each action is counterweighed against an earlier action or memory, either within the story or in another in the collection, so it’s not just the action itself that matters, but the connection it has to all the other moments in the character’s life. For instance, in the story “Chastity,” Benny meets Sarah, believes she is going to commit suicide, and “saves” her from jumping; they begin dating, and she ends up pregnant, so they decide to marry; they have a son, and then Sarah dies in a car accident; Benny remarries and has two more kids.
The plot covers many years, unconventional enough in a short story, but it’s the smaller moments and details within the action that shape the meaning. The plot itself might seem a bit overreaching—too much to possibly cover in a satisfying manner—but not when it’s told in conjunction with the scream in the neighborhood on the opening page, or the hair Benny finds in the opening scene that will eventually match the hair of his second wife, or the mugging in Benny’s past, the flash-forward to Benny and Sarah’s son Julian, the details of Benny and Sarah’s courtship, the comedy act where she tells him she’s pregnant. Plot alone isn’t the half of it.
These details, united with the insights and emotional truths Baxter layers into each narrative, make for lush and lovely stories. For instance, here’s Benny trying to understand how people interact: “Irony was the new form of chastity and was everywhere these days. You never knew whether people meant what they said or whether it was all a goof.” And here’s Benny pulling Sarah from the ledge of the bridge:
Benny felt a shock of attraction for her, an eerie electric charge. The attraction alarmed him. For what possible reason would she interest him? No prior cause ever explained his rogue desires, but this one maybe had to do with grieving a person who was still alive. He didn’t want to leave her, that was all, and he had to think of what to say immediately.
There’s that recognizable moment when we’re not quite sure whether falling in love will be a good thing or a bad thing, but feel unable to stop it one way or another: “When she had finished [the joke] and had hung up, he stood there feeling a slow trickle of infatuation, like a poison or its antidote, dripping down onto his heart.”
And finally, there’s the whole unexplainable acceptance of attraction and love:
Which is how Benny Takemitsu, a third-generation Japanese American who spoke little or no Japanese, a citizen of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a journeyman architect at the firm of Byrum and Haddam, a man who had such a weakness for women who could make him laugh that he could not help falling in love with such a woman, came to marry someone who had never kissed him but who had, at least, caressed his face. They conceived a child together and still she could not bear to kiss him, not before or after the child was born, a son whom they named Julian. Stranger things have happened, Benny would sometimes say to himself, about his wife’s particular form of chastity.
While the collection is organized into two sections of virtues and vices—Part One is comprised of the story titles “Bravery,” “Loyalty,” “Chastity,” “Charity,” and “Forbearance,” and Part Two of “Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice,” “Gluttony,” and “Vanity”—Baxter is looking at actions that can’t be cast simply as vices or virtues, knowing life is never that simple and polarizing. It’s the nuance of the middle ground—what’s not easily recognized as bravery or forbearance, for instance—that makes the opening section so compelling. The second section is interesting in a different way: gluttony is simply gluttony, and isn’t it often the case that our sins are more easily recognized than our virtues?
The stories overlap not only thematically and structurally in their oddness, but also through the characters themselves as they turn up in each other’s lives, drawing attention to the world Baxter has created. The title of this collection, “There’s something I want you to do,” is spoken by characters throughout the stories as they try to put into words what they need from each other. This naming of desires, these crystalized requests for action—please keep in touch/get rid of the weird hair you found/help me die—highlight the difficulty in putting into words what we really want to ask, and often the characters are asking for something other than what they’re saying. “There’s something I want you to do,” one woman says, but then refuses to say what that something is.
At the end, in “Coda,” the author asks, “How much happiness can there be, without its opposite close by, so that we can know what happiness is?” Only through looking at the complex contrasts and overlaps in the “moral universe” of each character can we hope to discover along with them what happiness, or its opposite, truly is.
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Erin Flanagan is the author of two short story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press: The Usual Mistakes (2005) and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories (2013). Her fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, The Missouri Review, The Connecticut Review, the Best New American Voices anthology series, and elsewhere. She’s held fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ conferences, and this summer served as faculty at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.