Of the many compelling readings at Tin House workshop this past July, Charles D’Ambrosio’s was among the most compelling. He read an excerpt from his short story, Screenwriter, which was originally published in The New Yorker and now can also be found in his brilliant short story collection, The Dead Fish Museum.

In reading this collection, you get the impression that this is a writer who understands pain–not just his own, but also that of those around him and that of our culture as a whole. The Dead Fish Museum is another name for a refrigerator that holds the bodies of fish pulled from a filthy river. Fish that will never be eaten, for they are too plentiful, too damaged, rotting.

The characters in these eight stories are those fish, and so are we.

Because instead of being a culture who hangs onto rites of passage, rituals, ways in which we scar our body that show we have come through childhood–that we have made it into adulthood and are reborn–we are a culture which scars itself in private, which hides in closets and nicks its skin with razor blades, which takes burning matches to its flesh:

When I returned to the bedroom the ballerina hadn’t moved. She’d sleep in these ashes, like some black-feathered bird. Her back was to me, and I went to her, but the burns covering her body—how would you even hold such a woman? Where exactly do you put your hands on somebody who hurts everywhere? I stopped short. I’d never seen her back before, and it was pristine. The skin was flawless, a cold hibernal blue where her blood flowed beneath. I blew on my fingers, warming them, and then laid my hand between her shoulder blades, lightly, as though to press too hard would leave a print.

In short, we are a culture who holds onto our pain so tightly–indeed, is shackled to it–that the only way to express it is through violence: directed at others, directed at ourselves. And why? Because we don’t know what else to do. We have lost our survival skills and escape is no longer an option–fight or flight means nothing:

“The fires are going out, it’s true.” She sank down in the tub and submerged so that only her knees, her small dancer’s breasts, her big nose, her lovely mouth and blue eyes, these isolated islands of herself, rose above the darkening water. Flecks of ash floated over the surface. “Here’s my idea for your next screenplay,” she said. “Sirens are going everywhere. People are weeping. It doesn’t really matter where you are, it’s all black. You can’t open your eyes anyway.”

“What are you saying?”

“And there’s a donkey marooned on an island in the middle of the ocean. A volcano is erupting on the island and rivers of hot lava are flowing toward the donkey. In addition, all around the small island is a ring of fire. What would you do?”

I considered the possibilities. “I don’t know.”

Smiling, she said, “The donkey doesn’t know, either.”

It’s a beautiful and, I think, important book and I hope you will read it and then take a good hard look at the world around you.

Here’re some links for more stories and information:

Interview with Charles D’Ambrosio
TRAIN IN VAIN, by Charles D’Ambrosio
HER REAL NAME, by Charles D’Ambrosio
The Lighted Window, by Charles D’Ambrosio

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