On Z.Z. Packer’s “Brownies” and everything else in the world

Every time I try to write about stories I want to write about everything.

The problem and the pleasure of talking about teaching and writing and reading stories is that every claim you could make can be swiftly and sharply contradicted.

It is not that I don’t believe in anything. I believe in the irreducible complexity and uncertainty of the human experience. And I believe in the worth of stories that try to share how a person experiences, understands and dies in the world, what it means and what it feels like to be alive.

By way of a concession, I want to say that of course there is no one correct way to write prose fiction. I love experimental fiction, I love difficult fiction, I love fiction that foregrounds language and I love genre fiction, fiction that privileges character archetypes and narrative momentum, fiction so compelling that it can pull readers into a well-loved imaginative space or introduce them into a new one. But I mean to make an argument for the particular worth of lyrical, realist, epiphanic fiction.

The criticisms of this kind of work are familiar. There is too much and ineffective description of weather. Lifeless flashbacks. Mindless repetition of tropes. Obvious narrative devices. Energy-less interiority, self-indulgent navel-gazing. Dependence on conventional morality. Unbelievably sudden realizations.

But these criticisms are all in the end aimed at some examples of content that use the form, not the form itself.

Perhaps there are so many easy criticisms to make of examples of the form because the form is the least forgiving of prose fiction forms. Its resources are the most limited, its conventions the most conventional. We may want to lose ourselves in language, but we have to stay in the story. We may want doors to other worlds, but they stay shut, because there is in the end of the end no other world.

One of my favorite experiences as a teacher was teaching The Awakening at a Catholic girl’s high school. This was in a suburb of Baltimore, a false Spring day in January or February or March, gray and windy and warm, and I succumbed to the half-serious request to have class outside for no reason, maybe because the strangeness of the weather, and once I halfway agreed there was no turning back.

We trooped upstairs from my windowless basement classroom to the school’s courtyard, a sort of rock garden in the center of the school with a vague statue or two, some dormant shrubs, a few benches, flagstone pavers at the center. We arrayed ourselves in a loose circle there.

I don’t remember the specifics of the discussion, but I remember the whole of it. It’s hard to remember meaningful conversations because being inside of one is so different from observing it from any distance.

There are several circumstantial reasons why the discussion was a good one. The energy of the naughtiness of sneaking outside. The electricity in the wind, the promise of spring in a storm. And this was a good group of students — thoughtful, interested and, yes, professionally dedicated to the task at hand, in the college-bound prep-school way. But most important was the way the book met the moment.

The question was opened about the motivations of the young woman’s suicide. Shadows moved overhead, the winds burst and turned, a few flicked drops of rain. She had responsibilities; she had a life to live; she walked into the water. What could be more important than life?

All my most meaningful experiences as a teacher come when I can most productively shut up.

Excellent lyrical realistic fiction makes me think of being a student in a classroom, listening to a teacher who you are indifferent to but who has a good reading voice. Some experimental and/or language-foregrounding fiction makes me think of looking at a painting of a can of baked beans floating in space. Sometimes you want space-beans. But sometimes you want to be wearing the same vaguely uncomfortable uniform as everyone else while sitting in an awkwardly small desk, listening to the same words.

The single story I have most enjoyed wrestling with and teaching over the past few years is Z. Z. Packer’s “Brownies.” It is a story about a fourth-grade African-American Brownie-troop who decide, based on an overheard slur, to “kick the asses” of each and every member of a troop of white girls. It is realistic, retrospectively voiced, epiphanic fiction. The narrator articulates in adult language for us an emotional insight she was struck by as a young person: there is something mean in the world I cannot stop.

I am never satisfied by the way I talk about the epiphanic moment in “Brownies,” how subtle and complex its machinery is, how all that subtlety and complexity functions in the service not of a cheap effect but in the service of the creation of a portrait of the subtlety and complexity of the world, of a specific mirror of the world.

The reason I am never satisfied in the way I talk about that story is that the story is much more meaningful than anything I could say about it.

It is important to always be unsatisfied.

“Brownies” is able to face injustice through a conservative form. More than that, “Brownies” does what I think fiction should do: force you to know again what it is to be alive, to not know what will happen next, to be a mystery to yourself, to be bombarded by impressions and experiences that do not come with explanatory notes.

The great question is: what use is holding on to this kind of story, both conventional and ambiguous, in the face of Donald Trump, a radical who knows absolutely what he should do? What the hell worth is a story? It is not change. It is not therapy. It is not hope. It is only another part of life; it is only life. It is life.

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