Issue 218, Fall 2016
It seemed simple enough. All I had to do was write a short entry for a film encyclopedia. No need to put your heart and soul into it, the editor had said on the phone. This time, I was very sure of myself. Convinced that in order to keep it short you need to know a great deal, I immersed myself in the history of the United States, read through the history of the self-portrait from antiquity to modern times, digressing to take in some sociological research about women from the 1950s and 1960s. I eagerly consulted dictionaries and biographies, gathered information about cinema verité, artistic avant-garde movements, the New York theater scene, Polish immigration to the United States; I did research on coal mining (reading up about mining exploration, finding out about the organizational structure of the mining industry, collecting data on coal deposits in Pennsylvania); I knew everything there was to know about the invention of hair curlers and the rise of the pinup model after the war. I felt like I was managing a huge building site, from which I was going to excavate a miniature model of modernity, reduced to its simplest, most complex form: a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.
So what’s the story about? my mother had inquired. She was pretending to be interested just to be nice, but she didn’t care. She really wanted to go back to ordinary stories of ordinary lives, gossip, things she knew and cared about—a dead cousin, an ailing female friend, a sickly child; and no sooner had she asked the question than my mind went blank, a fog set in, I felt a sudden unfamiliarity with the subject: everything that had been clear and obvious suddenly seemed completely inconsequential, lost in the awful echo chamber of background noise as she absentmindedly scraped her spoon around the bottom of her almost empty coffee cup, waiting for me to begin. It’s the story of a woman who is alone. Ah. The story of a woman. Yes? The story of a woman who has lost something important but doesn’t know exactly what, her children, her husband, her life, something else perhaps but we don’t know what, a woman who leaves her husband, her children, who breaks it off—but without violence, without having thought about it, without even wanting to break it off. And? And nothing. Nothing happens? Not really. Well, yes: she meets a man, follows him, gets attached to him even though he mistreats her, perhaps because he mistreats her, we don’t know, in any case she stays, she’s there, she stays. Right. He’s planning to rob a bank but his accomplice pulls out and he forces her to replace him—but that’s not the point. The heist goes badly wrong, he dies—but that’s not the point. Silence descended between us. I waited for her to ask me what the point was, but she didn’t.
Someone who knew Barbara Loden well told me, She said it is easy to be avant-garde, but it is really difficult to tell a simple story well.
The horizon is choked up to the sky and the trucks are traveling back and forth between the slag heaps. Wanda is on her way to the courthouse. We only find that out later. A hulking American car comes lumbering through the dust. It’s her husband and children, they’re making their way separately—but we only find that out later. She’s walking through a peat field, she’s wearing a light-colored pair of pants and a blouse sprinkled with flowers, her big curlers under a white head scarf, holding her vinyl handbag. An old man hunched on a black slope is picking up bits of coal. Picking coal again? —Yes, picking coal again, Wanda. He speaks slowly, in a thin, reedy voice, a kindly voice. He makes his way down the slope, faltering over the big lumps of coal. She asks him for some money. He sits down, catches his breath, takes out a few bills with his big, dry, trembling hands and gives them to her, Anything I can do for you, I’ll do it.
While I was telling the story, I was thinking of Georges Perec: “To start with, all one can do is try to name things, one by one, flatly, enumerate them, count them, in the most straightforward way possible, in the most precise way possible, trying not to leave anything out.”