Physiological Form Meets Psychological Space


Editor’s Note: For the first several months of 2022, we’ll be celebrating some of our favorite work from the last fourteen years in a series of “From the Archives” posts.

In today’s feature, Jacob M. Appel examines Elizabeth Graver’s short fiction. This essay was originally published on May 15, 2014.

One of the questions I am asked most frequently during interviews—both regarding my creative work and my parallel career as a medical writer—is to identify the volume of fiction by another author that I most wish I had written. Often the interviewer even supplies a list of potential candidates: Chekhov’s At Dusk, Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Ethan Canin’s Emperor of the Air. The presumption is that, as a practicing physician, I will envy the work of other physicians. So I will confess that I derive mildly perverse delight in dashing these expectations when I name Elizabeth Graver’s short story collection, Have You Seen Me? (1991), as the work of fiction that I most wish I could claim to be my own. Even those interviewers who are familiar with Graver’s writing are surprised that this volume, rather than any of her three major novels, has provoked my literary jealousy. 

9780156013901Graver stands out among those versatile authors whose acclaim in one genre has overshadowed her talent in another. In the same way that Thornton Wilder’s success as a dramatist has thoroughly eclipsed his masterful later novels, including the National Book Award-winning The Eighth Day, and that Sherwood Anderson’s reputation for fiction can lead readers to overlook his trenchant essays, Graver’s widespread recognition for her second novel, The Honey Thief (2000), has obscured her achievements in shorter forms. Indeed, The Honey Thief is a deeply moving narrative; eleven-year-old Eva Baruch and her beekeeping mentor, Burl, form one of contemporary fiction’s most memorable friendships. Graver’s other two full-length works of fiction, Unraveling (1999) and Awake (2005), although they did not draw as much popular acclaim, are equally accomplished. Yet all of these volumes yoke two particular and distinctive techniques that are most overtly visible in Graver’s shorter prose, both in Have You Seen Me?, which won the University of Pittsburgh’s prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and in her later, as-yet-uncollected stories like “The Mourning Door” (Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize, 2001). First, Graver pays considerable attention to the physical form of her characters, and to the nature and uses of the human body, generating a precise physiological reality. Second, she devotes painstaking care to the issue of perspective and narrative distance in order to fashion psychological space for her characters as convincing as are their physical forms. By astutely balancing the physical with the psychological, Graver manages to produce what I call “four-dimensional stories.”

Far too many stories these days prove merely three-dimensional…. As readers, we live inside their heads—not inside their bodies.

Far too many stories these days prove merely three-dimensional. In other words, their principal characters display psychological width, length and depth, but operate as minds utterly detached from corporeal beings. As readers, we live inside their heads—not inside their bodies. We discover how their psyches process their surroundings, but not how their skin senses the living world. These characters explore an intensely abstract universe like brains trapped within jars, conversing with other similarly trapped entities.  They suffer ennui and angst, but never a stomach ache or a chest cold. They are the opposite of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman in that their existence does not extend below the neck.

Bodiless three-dimensional characters are a relatively new development in western literature. Chaucer’s great tale-tellers, The Miller and The Wife of Bath, delighted in describing the flesh inhabited by their characters; Shakespeare’s Falstaff is unmistakably a slave to his appetites and Lear a prisoner of his own frail skeleton. From Dickens’s crutch-dependent Tiny Tim to Melville’s peg-legged Ahab, a memorable character’s physical traits once mattered as much as his or her psychological ones. Regrettably, the rise of Modernism—the nuanced third-person narrations in Joyce’s Dubliners and Virginia Woolf’s pitch-perfect interior monologues—witnessed a concomitant decline in the significance of human bodies in fiction. Needless to note, there are exceptions:  the unforgettable dwarf, Trudi Montag, in Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River (1994); Diane Schoemperlen’s indelible “Body Language” (Best American Short Stories, 1998). Yet on the whole, today’s leading writers focus primarily upon developing characters with recognizable and authentic minds, giving the bodies of their creations very short shrift.

As a medical doctor, of course, I labor everyday at the nexus of physical and emotional well-being. My world is strikingly four-dimensional.  Maybe that explains why I find Graver’s first collection so refreshing. Her writing is defined by a rare, relentless physicality. In her stories, she forces even the most cerebral of readers to come to terms with the tangible bodies and body parts of her characters. Frequently, however, she does so in the most imaginative and unexpected of ways.

The opening pages of “Yellow Tent” offer an example of how Graver exquisitely weaves the human body into her stories. At the beginning of the narrative, we follow fourteen-year-old Darren as he watches his twenty-year-old cousin, Meg, swimming in the waters of the Black River. The pair have gone on a camping trip—she to escape her “serious” husband, he out of puppy-lust for her. Initially, the reader sees Meg’s body as Darren does, from a distance, while he spies on her preparing to enter the current: “Watching her lift her shirt above her head, he had experienced a moment of panic, first at expecting flesh, then at seeing that suit there like the mottled skin of a beast.” Graver forces us from the very outset to confront Meg’s physical figure and also Darren’s panic—a decidedly biological response—at seeing that figure. A moment later, Graver renders the physicality even more intimate:

Darren sat on shore hugging his knees, aimed two flashlights across the water and watched as their beams began to waver, refracted by the stream. As it grew darker he aimed them at Meg, a spot on each of her cheeks, on each of her breasts, then lower where his Encyclopedia of the Human Body said her two twin ovaries would be. He loved that word: ovaries. He had memorized Woman on the page, decided to be a doctor like his father so he could know more, touch the places that made and maintained life—ovaries, but also hearts, kidneys, lungs.[1]

If this is not enough to remind us that Meg and Darren are flesh-and-blood human beings, during the next scene Graver describes Meg running “her palms over the ground feeling for bumps” while Darren “crack[s] his knuckles and “feel[s] a tightness in his scalp.”[2] In a flashback, the author has Meg tickle Darren until he becomes helpless with laughter and tears, then shows the girl wiping the snot from his nose with her sleeve. One cannot imagine any human interaction—certainly any non-sexual interaction—more visceral.

Graver’s focus on physical forms early in “Yellow Tent” is not gratuitous. Rather, this emphasis on bodies lays the groundwork for a climatic scene in which Darren makes a sexual advance toward Meg while the two lie side by side in their sleeping bags. The boy “ran his hands along her face, tunneled toward her through the dark.”[3] Graver writes that “his hands were…two live animals burrowing through her sleeping bag, pushing past her T-shirt to her skin.”[4] Graver even grants agency to Darren’s mouth: “It was her neck, the hollow there where he could feel her bones, that his mouth most wanted, and her mouth with its taffy smell.”[5] Similarly, his hands “were not his hands, but something run-away from him.”[6] In effect, Graver bestows upon Darren’s body a willpower all its own. This approach only works because the author has already prepared her readership for the intense physicality of this moment with the earlier “four-dimensional” passages. From the outset, Graver reveals the bodies of her principals; in the end, she harnesses those bodies to drive forward her plot and the psychological development of her characters.

mSh51ebVVEjdrrlRbYKF8gAA similar technique shapes “The Body Shop,” in which early attention to the fragility of human bodies prepares us for the actual disintegration and decay of the protagonist’s mother in the story’s final pages. However, in “The Body Shop” (Best American Short Stories, 1991), the initial bodies do not even belong to living people, but are hand-fashioned mannequins that the main character’s mother designs for high-end shops, weddings and opera halls. As a young child, the protagonist, Simon, is assigned to “sort the eyes” for these dummies. “I screwed in legs…” he recalls, “and dabbed paint at chipped neck joints.” Graver shifts between describing the boy’s relationship with the bodies of these mannequins and relating the interactions of the boy’s mother and her numerous lovers. Everything about these latter interactions is related in physical terms. During scenes in which one of her paramours watches her at work, Simon recalls that his mother said little, but “would run a finger along the underside of his wrist or tap him, and then me, on the chin.”[7] Later in the evening, if she wanted her son to leave her alone with a man, she “clapped her hands or yawned.”[8] Simon learns which lovers have followed her back to her bedroom when he overhears “a sneeze” or an “amputated bark of laughter.”[9] By harnessing many of the body’s most primitive physical actions, Graver manages to convey complex degrees of communication while relying only minimally upon speech.

The purpose of Graver’s groundwork grows clearer as the story advances. First, we discover that “The Body Shop” sells more than mannequins—that on at least one occasion, and presumably more often, the narrator’s mother exchanges sexual favors for business advancement. More important, this early foundation in physiological form adds considerably to the power of the second half of the story, in which we encounter Simon’s mother as a senior citizen residing in a nursing home, trapped within the confines of her own failing body. The old lady has lost a leg to gangrene; her nemesis is a “prosthesis man” who can’t “keep his hands to himself.”[10] If this were merely a “three-dimensional” story, the sudden shift to gangrene and molestation might feel jarring, even heavy-handed. Graver’s insight is to lace the story with physiological threads from the outset, so that when these threads develop into an ominous and graphic tapestry, the reader still experiences them as an organic outgrowth of the story’s beginning.

The role of bodies has grown further pronounced in Graver’s more recent short fiction. At the opening of “The Mourning Door” (2001), the main character—a young wife struggling to become pregnant—finds “a hand” under her mattress cover.  Later, she discovers “a shoulder, round and smooth” and then “a second hand with five perfect fingers.”[11] Additional body parts follow. Although as readers we do not know the source of these body parts, we are told that they are “substantial” and “real.” They are so real, in fact, that the young wife attempt to sew them together to form a whole baby:

She stitches feet to legs, carefully doing the seams on the inside so they won’t show.  She attaches leg to torso, sews on the little penis. The boy-child begins to stir, to struggle; perhaps he has to pee….

The possibility that the child might need to urinate proves a brilliant touch, a reminder that this creature is not merely a theoretical infant. What makes this tale remarkable, however, is not the physicality of the would-be child, which is essential to the plot of the story, but the physicality of the characters who surround the boy. The protagonist has her hair cut, undergoes injections and ultrasounds, tracks her own temperature. Her husband holds his body still after sex to increase the odds of fertilization. On the television news, an accident victim in a coma performs a miracle that restores a blind man’s vision. “The Mourning Door” creates a rich world of clots and cramps and saliva. Not a page passes without multiple reminders that Graver’s characters bleed, sweat and cry. In a telling moment, the wife reflects that “her body is guiding, pushing, urging her” to stitch the infant parts together. This woman’s thoughts are the product of her actions, rather than the opposite. That is “four-dimensional,” physically-grounded writing at its finest.

Each of Graver’s stories presents physicality with its own distinctive twist. In “Music for Four Doors,” the bodies described are those of a pregnant gardener and an autistic neighbor. In “Around the World,” the bodies belong to a young woman with a rare pain syndrome and the mice that she has been tasked with feeding to a captive snake. Some of the bodies in the “The Experimental Forrest” are not even animals, but rather infected trees, “scarred” or “moist with sap.”[12] “The Blue Hour” presents the body of an elderly lesbian hypochondriac who develops a crush on her indifferent nurse. In that tale, the narrator describes her own dubious symptoms as feeling “small, continual palpitations in my chest, legs, and arms, as if a crew of gentle carpenters were tapping with rubber hammers in my bones”;[13] so vivid and visceral is this description that, as readers, we can almost feel these palpitations ourselves. Over the course of Have You Seen Me?, Graver’s characters sniffle, perspire, sunburn, slap, stutter, flare their nostrils, urinate in their underwear and rub their backs against trees to scratch itches. As a spectator, one never loses touch with the demands of their bodies, even as one explores the needs of their souls.

Elizabeth Graver-Wf-M.Music-MACD-12-004,#205Creating physical characters alone, of course, does not make successful literature. We are writers, after all, not sculptors.  Fortunately, Graver also has a knack for situating her narrative voice at precisely the right distance to paint revealing, but never distracting, psychological portraits of her subjects. Many writers today have a tendency to approach too close to their characters—to tell stories at such a limited distance that the voice of the third-person authorial narrator and the thoughts of the characters begin to blend. The specious benefit of such an approach is immediacy. The unfortunate consequence is a lack of perspective. In contrast, while Graver often delves into her characters minds, she never loses herself in them. Her narrative voice always maintains enough distance so that, at any moment, it can pull back even farther to provide context or insight. Graver seems to recognize that if you peer at an object from too close a proximity, the object often loses focus.   Instead, she affords her readers oblique yet revealing glances into her subjects’ minds—mirroring the technique that naked-eyed astronomers use to view stars in the night sky. The result is a much more nuanced understanding of her characters’ psychologies.

An impressive example of this technique appears in Have You See Me?’s title story. The narrative centers on a young girl named Willa whose mother is stockpiling homemade soup in preparation for the “end of the world.” To cope with the stresses surrounding her—an absent father, a neurotic mother, the threat of impending nuclear winter—Willa generates a complex fantasy life involving the missing children depicted on the milk cartons inside which her mother’s soup is stored. Conveying complex issues through the constricted viewpoint of a school-age child poses a considerable challenge. Graver does so by periodically pulling the narrative out of her protagonist’s thoughts. For instance, when describing the girl’s attitude toward nuclear war, she writes:

Willa thought everyone was overreacting. Sure, there might be silos under the ground and blinking lights that could go off, and escape systems that would lead to nowhere, and broccoli and cauliflower that would grow big as trees afterwards, like in the paintings her mother made. There might be all that, but still what did they know above the end, for she was sure something would survive, making it really not the end at all….[14] (italics mine)

Twice in this paragraph, Graver skillfully grounds us in a reality beyond Willa’s consciousness. First, she does so subtly, by the shift to the non-interior and more distant voice in the phrase, “like in the paintings her mother made.” The earlier portion of this sentence, beginning with the colloquial “sure,” might well be precisely what Willa is thinking in her own voice; the ending of the phrase obviously cannot be. In the same vein, a less-skilled writer might have ended the paragraph with the sentence: “There might be all that, but still what did they know above the end, something would survive, making it really not the end at all….” That material is all inside Willa’s head.  However, by adding the small yet crucial modifying phrase, for she was sure,” Graver reminds her readers of a world beyond Willa’s speculations. As a result, we obtain a far more nuanced portrait of Willa’s psyche than we might if we were confined to her own perspective.

Graver displays this same craft technique repeatedly throughout “Have You Seen Me?”; as the story advances, she uses this approach to emphasize the subjectivity of Willa’s perspective, an approach the culminates in the penultimate paragraph:

Willa wished her ants were leafcutter ants, the kind who dragged bits of plants and caterpillar droppings to their underground nests and grew fungus on them, like farmers. Then they ate the fungus and fed it to their kids. That was practical—the leafcutters could live through almost anything, but Willa’s ants were used to bread and honey and being bed by her. The missing children, the way she saw them, were more like leafcutter ants.  Somehow they knew how to get by.[15] (again, italics mine)

This entire paragraph hinges on the phrase “the way she saw them.” Even without this phrase, of course, the reader recognizes that this material reflects Willa’s perspective. Yet the addition of this seemingly innocuous phrase reminds us of the existence of other perspectives, and so implicitly calls into question the authority of the girl’s opinions. The effect of this device is a story that can focus closely on a character’s thoughts, when necessary, but that also retains the flexibility essential to providing a more panoramic window on the broader world.

Graver can also create psychological space in first-person narratives, which is a daunting task for many writers. One of the collection’s gems is “Scraps,” a misty, romantic tale of a pair of recent college graduates, Har and Naomi, who spend the summer living in a beach house on the Maine coast that belongs to Har’s aunt. Eventually, Aunt Elsie herself arrives at the residence and alters the course of their relationship. None of the events of the story prove particularly original or earth shattering, yet the piece nonetheless shows itself to be deeply moving. How does Graver achieve this effect?  The key to her success is that she has Naomi narrate the story from an indeterminate distance that is neither fully in the moment nor fully in the future, but at some theoretical juncture in between. In order to achieve this effect, Graver has Naomi imagine events in multiple permutations. For instance, the girl initially speculates that after a swim in the ocean, “Elsie would fall asleep in a room sacred with her possessions [and] cradle a pillow against herself….” However, a moment later the narrative reconceptualizes the hypothetical future in Naomi’s thoughts:

[P]erhaps I was wrong about Elsie—maybe she was happy by herself or had hidden a lover in the closet or left one in the city. Maybe she couldn’t care less about what happened between me and Har. What did I know about my boyfriend’s aunt—how she slept, how she viewed the objects on her shelves? What did I know about my boyfriend? Such gall, such cockeyed innocence for me to have agreed to come out here in the first place. I had not thought twice.

What Graver has done is to allow her narrator, Naomi, presumably at some point after the events of the story, to place herself in the mind of the Naomi who is living the story. The use of these speculative thoughts, rendered in the past tense, informs the reader that these passages are not actually taking place inside Naomi’s mind at the time of the story, but rather in her present self’s re-creation of that mindset. This method allows Graver to give readers a sense of both who her narrator was at the time of the story, and also who she has since become. In other words, like a fine wine, Naomi’s psyche is allowed the room to breathe.

9780312428440The most surprising aspect of Graver’s emphasis on physiological form and psychological space is that such a focus should be surprising at all. One wonders how modern fiction has reached a point where the bodies of characters receive so little attention and the zeitgeist is to drive narratives ever closer and deeper into the psyches of characters. Maybe this phenomenon is the produce of the rise of social media—of living in a world where everything is immediate and where we interact over computer screens, rather than body-to-body. One is reminded of the “orgasmatron” machine in Woody Allen’s futuristic satire, Sleeper, which allows for “sexual intercourse” without physical contact. So much of today’s writing allows for a parallel “intellectual intercourse” without physical contact. Fortunately, the body has seen a recent revival as a subject of concern in non-literary media. The reenactment of performance artist Marina Abramović’s “Imponderabilia” at the MOMA in 2010, in which two naked actors stand in a doorway while museum-goers are forced to squeeze past, attracted widespread (and reassuring) acclaim. Singer Molly Hager, starring in the musical Fat Camp (2012), has championed a performance style that never lets listeners forget that her magnificent voice remains attached to an equally magnificent body. A number of striking memoirs, including Emily Rapp’s Poster Child (2007) and Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay (2010) have tackled disability and illness respectively in graphically and refreshing physical terms. Yet in short fiction, Graver has long stood as an outlier, a rare reminder that human beings do more than merely think. If we are ever to return to the widespread use of “four dimensions” in literature—and as a physician, I desperately hope that we do—Graver’s ample and alluring body of work is the place where we will have to look for guidance.

[1] Elizabeth Graver, “Yellow Tent,” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  39.

[2] Elizabeth Graver, “Yellow Tent,” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  41.

[3] Elizabeth Graver, “Yellow Tent,” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  50.

[4] Elizabeth Graver, “Yellow Tent,” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  50.

[5] Elizabeth Graver, “Yellow Tent,” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  50.

[6] Elizabeth Graver, “Yellow Tent,” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  50.

[7] Elizabeth Graver, “The Body Shop,” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  118.

[8] Elizabeth Graver, “The Body Shop,” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  118.

[9] Elizabeth Graver, “The Body Shop,” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  118.

[10] Elizabeth Graver, “The Body Shop,” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  130.

[11] Elizabeth Graver, “The Mourning Door,” The Best American Short Stories, 2001 (ed. Barbara Kingsolver)  (New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 2001). P.  98-99.

[12] Elizabeth Graver, “The Experimental Forest,” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  115.

[13] Elizabeth Graver, “The Experimental Forest,” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  56.

[14] Elizabeth Graver, “Have You Seen Me?” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  22.

[15] Elizabeth Graver, “Have You Seen Me?” Have you Seen Me?  (Hopewell, NJ: The Echo Press, 1993). P.  38.

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