The sexy, theological stories of Jamie Quatro and the charming and harrowing essays of Aleksandar Hemon
Published: March 13, 2013
Religion and sex, at their best, are hard to distinguish from one another—just ask any of the great mystics. Add long-distance running and cancer to that observation and you’ll find yourself somewhere near Lookout Mountain, Ga., which is the center of Jamie Quatro country.
Occasionally, a first book of short stories can shake the world awake with its extraordinarily singular vision and voice, reinvigorating language. Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More (Grove) is such a book—and holy fuck, is it. The 15 loosely connected stories are startling, heartrending, and extraordinarily sexy—in a scary sort of way.
The sex in Quatro is scary because it is uncontrollable. Many of the stories deal with a “promiscuous housewife” (as one of the stories puts it) who has an emotional, long-distance, electronic affair with a married man. The first story, “Caught Up,” begins with the words, “The visions started coming when I was nine.” The visions came as a “tugging in my middle, as if I were a kite about to be yanked up by a string attached just below my navel.”
The lack of control, which is at the root of both senses of the word “passion” is transferred to the erotic by the second page, when “Three years ago—seventeen years into this marriage—I fell in love with a man who lives nine hundred miles away.” By the end of that page, the narrator goes on a long run and “the old vision returned. The upward tug in my belly. I recognized the feeling—what I felt every time the other man, the faraway man, told me what he would do if he had me in person, my wrists pinned over my head.
“It would be devotional, he’d said. I would lay myself on your tongue like a Communion wafer.”
All of these themes, introduced in the first three pages, will return to haunt these stories again and again. In “Demolition” a deaf man’s dramatic exit from church so deeply affects the parishioners that shortly thereafter, they have demolished the 18th century building and are worshipping naked in a cave, where “each night, under the cover of darkness, we discovered the sacramental nature of oral ministrations. The men laid themselves on our women’s tongues—and on one another’s tongues—in humble acts of devotion. The women straddled waiting mouths, heads thrown back, eyes closed.”
“Imperfections,” “You Look Like Jesus,” and “Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives” all follow the wife in love with the man who lives 900 miles away—but in the last of these stories, the man is dead, lying in the bed she shares with her husband, creating an allegorical scene worthy of Kafka or Donald Barthelme. This allegorical vein is continued in stories like “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement,” where long-distance running has become a major spectator sport after runners are required to carry sculptures with them.
These stories create a slightly skewed reality, but the really terrifying stories here are the ones that stick most closely to the real—the really holy-shit-I-fucking-hate-that-its-real reality of things like cancer and paralysis. The one-two punch of “Better to Lose an Eye” and especially “Georgia the Whole Time” will certainly make you cry. In the latter, a woman is dying of melanoma. “Before, I would not have believed that it’s possible to feel arousal and despair at the same time. That you could want to straddle your husband across a restaurant chair, open your blouse, rock in his lap and cry with pleasure, cry because now you know, you know how much you love your body and his. . . You cry because this last raw thing—fucking—has become a consolation. You cry because when your husband first makes love to another woman, it will be a consolation. And then later it won’t.”
We find this same kind of beautifully horrible resolve in The Book of My Lives (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), the first collection of nonfiction by MacArthur “genius” grant-winning writer Aleksandar Hemon. At the end of the book, in “The Aquarium,” when Hemon writes about the death of his young daughter, it is almost unbearable because we know it is true. (Don’t make the mistake of reading this on the Light Rail—like I did—and bawling publicly in front of a bunch of strangers who will wonder what the fuck is wrong with you.) “One of the most common platitudes we heard was that ‘words failed,’” Hemon writes. “If there was a communication problem it was that there were too many words; they were far too heavy and too specific to be inflicted upon others . . . we let them think that words failed, because we knew they didn’t want to be familiar with the vocabulary we used daily. . . they didn’t want to know what we did; we didn’t want to know it either.”
It is to Hemon’s great credit that he was able to take these horrible words and turn them into a beautiful, elegiac essay while excoriating “the most despicable religious fallacy. . . that suffering is ennobling.” His daughter’s “suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world.” This is the perfect ending to a book which, up until this point—where there is no advantage, nothing good and nothing gained—is such a joy to read because it continually turns calamity to advantage. The book begins with Hemon’s childhood in Sarajevo in the early 1970s and it is wonderful to follow him around the city as he writes his “militantly Sarajevan” column for a local paper, gets arrested and disgraced for playing a youthful prank, and creates one of his most compelling early stories, “The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders,” from The Question of Bruno, published in English in 2000.
The Book of My Lives brings Hemon, as narrator, from the Sarajevo of his youth to Chicago. He planned on a short cultural exchange to America, but when he was here, Sarajevo was besieged and he never returned.
Hemon is often compared to Conrad and Nabakov, other emigres who came to English late and, yet, reinvented it as master stylists—and the comparisons are apt. But Quatro’s remarkable debut shows that someone need not come from any farther than Georgia to shake us awake with the holiness of our language and our flesh and the horror of their corruption.
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