Blot Lit Reviews: Lives of Crimes & Other Stories by L. Shapley Bassen
As readers, we often find ourselves in two variant situations. That is to say, while we read, we either assume the position of a character within a story or, we float above and around them like Casper the Friendly Ghost. L. Shapley Bassen toys with this precise concept in her collection, Lives of Crime & Other Stories, as she develops a landscape in which readers are forced to participate as players rather than spectators. Bassen fosters her fictitious world by thrusting remarkably inconsequential characters into extraordinarily peculiar circumstances.
John Updike writes, “We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings… Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting,” and this is how Bassen approaches her stories. In one of her better pieces, Eulogy for Miss Eulalie, Bassen takes us into the world of an unnamed female narrator as she gives an unconventional eulogy in honor of her mentor, a revered Mississippian novelist, Miss Eulalie. Bassen writes, “I want to remember with you this good woman, this gentle and strong spirit. The best way to do this is to tell you the meanest thing she ever did in her life.” It is stories such as this in which Bassen is able to illicit strong reactions from readers by keeping them at an arm’s length while simultaneously asking “What would you do if this were you?”
Interestingly enough, Bassen juxtaposes light hearted stories like Eulogy for Miss Eulalie with darker tales like Gottesman’s Constant and Triptych in which readers are presented with the grittiness of life under startling circumstances. Triptych follows the life of an art curator, Phyllis, as she attempts to achieve an iota of happiness:
“Her divorce and parents’ deaths had numbed Phyllis. The painting assigned to her team was the quintessential piece for a major autumn exhibit. When Phyllis had seen the jigsaw piece of the Matchby on a tarp spread on a basement floor, she felt something.”
As readers soar through Phyllis’ life, they bear witness to the evils that endeavor to overcome her; however, Bassen cleverly leaves us with a shred of hope for Phyllis, writing, “There, Toeput had painted Aaron’s African face, and the two figures shouldering burdens were recognizably Phyllis running from Marshall, resisting the irresistible.”
Similarly, Bassen repeats this formula in another story, Gottesman’s Constant, wherein a young man’s scientific findings are at jeopardy of being published by either a peer or professor of his. Michael, the young man, finds himself in a bedraggled state after a tragic event and seems to be searching for something, or someone, though he has no idea why. But, what sets this work apart from Triptych, is the thoughtfulness of the language Bassen uses. She writes:
“On a dark blue night on Isle End, the sky was neatly printed with constellations. Orion was above him and a girl’s body beneath him. He liked the smallness of females and his own increasing size in an expanding universe.”
It is segments such as this that inspire the reader to think on a grand scale. And yet, in one fell swoop, we are grounded to Michael’s character because Bassen’s literary finesse brings him to life. We do not ache for him, but with him, which is contradictory to her other pieces in the collection that tend to keep readers dissociated from characters.
Though Bassen explores the majority of her pieces with a profound consciousness toward the tediousness of life, one piece in particular misses the mark. The Reckoning Ball, a play about three characters: Mr. Bitelli an Italian man and the owner of a diner, Charlayne a young African-American girl and patron at the diner, and finally, Dr. Stern, a Jewish female physician, also a patron of the diner. The play, set in 1960 Brooklyn, revolves around the dialogue that transpires between the characters about the tearing down of Ebbets Field. The first impression of the play is quaint: three culturally distinctive characters coming together to discuss America’s favorite past time, baseball. However, this concept falls to pieces when readers are presented to the superfluously stereotyped characters. Mr. Bitelli in a bout of nostalgia says with a thick Italian accent: “I was 14 years old when I come to this country, and the first thing I remember I see the Statue of Liberty… — (pause) Ebbets Field,” to which Charlayne, impatiently waiting for her basketball playing boyfriend to call, replies, “I know, we all know, all Brooklyn knows.” The female characters, absorbed with their own lives, scoff at the diner owner for his excessive talk of baseball while he concurrently downplays basketball, which Charlayne mentions is the next big thing. Bassen works with a wonderful notion here, but fails to create characters that hold substance. Fiction should work to eliminate stereotypes, not perpetuate them.
While I enjoyed the deeper meanings of Bassen’s collection, the ability to both capture readers and distance them, the way she takes the humdrum of life and enriches it with oddity, or the poeticism of her language, her collection is not for the lazy reader. In order to grasp the quality of her works, the reader, should they not have a basic knowledge of eighteenth century Italian art, the French language, or Chinese/Japanese history (I certainly do not), must inevitably research references in her collection or, continue unawares and ignorant thus making the accessibility of her work limited.