Recap for “The Rags”

For starters I’m going to clarify what I mean by a recap. There’s been some confusion with this in the past. I’m not rewriting the story in any way. The way I see it once I’ve published a story on here I’m honor bound to leave it alone. Sometimes, late at night, if I can’t stop running a sentence around and around in my head, I’ll hop into an old story and move a comma, maybe change two words, but that’s really it. I swear.

When I write a recap it simply means I wound up with a lot of background information while writing the story that I think might be of interest to my readers and I’ve decided to share it (sometimes I don’t feel like sharing). Anyway, since I jump around and talk about all parts of the story my main point here is to mention that you should read The Rags first, and then this post second. Unless you don’t feel like it. Whatever. Do what you want. I’m not your mother.

So about a year ago…actually it was well over a year ago…I dropped my laundry off at my local laundromat. I use the Wash/Dry/Fold service which means I bring in my sack of laundry, they weigh it, I take my ticket, then the next day I drop off my ticket and they hand me my sack of laundry and it’s now nice and clean and I pay them and I leave. I feel like I have to justify this. I don’t know if this is a New York thing or an urban thing or a northeastern thing, but if you don’t have a washing machine actually in your apartment (and who does in Manhattan?) then it makes an awful lot of sense to just drop your stuff off rather than sit there and do your own laundry. It’s like three bucks more per wash cycle and, here’s the important part, they fold it for you. Whenever I do my own laundry it gets nice and clean and it gets dry but I never put it away properly so I end up with a big ball of wrinkles. Dropping it off is so much better.

Right. Anyway, so over a year ago I dropped my stuff off and when I picked it up everything was pink. Wonderful stuff. I don’t know if I forgot to ask them to separate it or if they got lazy or what happened, but obviously a red got washed with my whites and it ran. And, the thing was, I knew exactly which article of clothing was the culprit. Awhile before that my cousin had gone to China on a trip with his business school and he had brought back all sorts of souvenirs, most of which had Chairman Mao on them. Apparently he’s everywhere over there in a very Mickey Mouse sort of way and everyone and their mother comes back with a Chairman Mao t-shirt or cigarette case or what have you. So that’s what I got, my cousin came back and gave me a bright red t-shirt with Mao Zedong on it and I wore it and did my laundry and everything turned pink. And, since I hate shopping for clothes, a fair number of those clothes are still in use for me today. And I have this project going now and, so, I’ll put it to you this way: when your imagination is permanently jammed into high-gear and you see a pink sock in your drawer and you know that the Communist leader Mao Zedong was responsible for spreading red throughout your wardrobe…well it’s sort of hard not to start running with that idea.

So that’s where I was, I had this conflict set up in my head and I wanted it to take place at the laundromat and I sort of had that basic story in place at first, the spreading of red/pink through the whites due to dark influences or something. And it was going nowhere. For some reason I couldn’t get a handle on it. Shocking, I know. And it was getting rather late in the week and I still had nothing and I did what I sometimes do when I’m really stuck; I reached for one of my favorite stories. It helps quite a bit to read something that you’ve come to love, that will inspire you, that you consider to be genius. It helps to remind you of what you’re shooting for, of what is possible when these clumsy inaccurate “word” things do manage to get strung together in the proper order. It reminds you that magic can happen. And that was it. I reached for an old standard of mine, a short story that I love reading, and everything fell into place. I can sum up the idea in one sentence. Here we go:

James Joyce’sThe Dead” set in a laundromat with articles of clothing as the main characters.

That either means something to you or it doesn’t. If it means something than you understand why I couldn’t stop laughing while writing this story, if it means nothing then, for starters, you might want to try reading “The Dead.” You can do so at this link. Not that one reading will clear a lot up. It’s a pretty dense short story. But you should know it’s widely considered to be one of the greatest works of literature that humankind has ever produced. Also, it’s the final short story in Joyce’s The Dubliners, which makes it the final story in what is widely considered one of the greatest collection of short stories ever written. I rather enjoy the summation given for “The Dead” in the above linked wikipedia entry for The Dubliners: “At a party, Gabriel Conroy offends three women and realizes in an epiphany that passionless people like himself are already dead.” Which is perfectly true, but it’s rather like saying The Godfather is: “That movie about the Italian fellow who dies.” Again, true enough, but there’s a little bit more to be had.

The point I’m getting at is that “The Dead” is a wildly rich story covering topics from Irish Nationalism to Dublin life at the turn of the century to poetry to art to alcoholism to relationships to on and on and on and on. That’s what the great stories do, they appear like one thing one day and another thing another day and you come to realize that they are so damned close to actually replicating life that you are capable of coming back to them time and again and find that they still speak to you because, simply put, they are the next best thing to truth. And, on top of Joyce’s command of topic and ability to invoke anything with anything, there’s also the simple fact that the guy could write a sentence that’ll knock you on your ass. When he describes snow on a Dublin night, you shiver. That simple. Assuming you give him a chance and take a few steps in his direction to make up for the near-century of distance between you and him.

So, here I am, and the idea to recreate “The Dead” in a laundromat has entered my head and I can’t get it out and time keeps ticking away and I start to realize that this has got to be my story for this deadline because nothing else is coming and I can’t stop laughing. Again, if you know “The Dead” you should understand. If not, well, in the original the final scene between Gabriel (Sullivan in my version) and his wife comes to a head when she breaks down in tears over a consumptive boy she once knew in the old country who, after she told him she was moving to Dublin, stood in the rain all night and told her he didn’t want to live. In my story a sock tells this to a white cotton bra who then breaks down in tears recounting this story to her husband…who is a sweater.  And if that wasn ‘t enough to start me laughing for the night, then I’d swing back the other way, away from the details of the story and into the legendary status of the story, and I’d realize that I’ve decided to recreate one of the greatest works of art ever produced and the tools at my disposal are a bunch of talking pants.

Now onto some of the details of “The Rags.” Despite the laughter I found this to be preposterously difficult. I read “The Dead” about once a day up until the deadline in an attempt to figure out what the story meant to me. I didn’t want to just go scene by scene and recreate it with clothes standing in for Joyce’s characters. I wanted to break it down into its essential components and then build it back up again in my clothing world. “The Dead” came to be, to me, the story of Gabriel, who is stuck between two worlds and who barely even knows it. He’s straddling the middle ground of Dublin life at the turn of the century, neither completely against British rule, in fact he rather finds himself socially reaching to be more continental more often than not, but he doesn’t exactly want to toss away Ireland either, he feels a good deal of Irish pride. This is after about sixteen readings in one week, mind you. I’ll admit that most of Gabriel’s choices throughout the story seem to lean toward leaving behind “old Irish” life and moving towards the more, as he sees it, sophisticated British way of things. But I also started to notice that Gabriel, for his part, loves his family and his aunts and, even though he might not know it, he’s pretty attached to Ireland.

Oh, hell, I got like a “C” in the Joyce class I took in college and I’m not exactly burning up the page here with my Dubliners insight. Plus, there’s probably been eighty million words written about Joyce’s work. Not sure I need to add to that (even the footnotes in my edition of The Dubliners argue with one another…which is rather entertaining in and of itself). The point is, there’s a struggle between classes going on inside the main character, and then he finds out his wife isn’t the person who he thought she was, she has her own life and her own passions, something he hadn’t quite grasped or glimpsed (possibly because they’re entwined with the way of life he’s attempting to leave behind). So, that translated into the various cycles of laundry in my story. Naturally. And those cycles are basically based on my own attempts at laundry. When I didn’t care I’d take everything I had and throw it all together on the cold cycle, a little more effort on my part would result in separating things out so I could run a warm cycle, and real attention meant I might even run a delicate cycle. And those are the three classes that Sullivan is being torn between. The cold cycle of my college days being the more rustic version of things, rustic but beloved. The middle road of Dublin urban life being the warm cycle. And, across the sea in England, what is perceived as a more civilized life being represented by the delicate cycle. Not that any of these lifestyles are obviously better in any way, but Gabriel/Sullivan certainly seems to see them in those terms. Also, I don’t really know how to do laundry, so I’m pretty sure I messed up at times what clothes might even go into a cold cycle. I don’t know. Laundry is hard. Life is hard. Writing a story where laundry substitutes for life…also pretty hard. Weird too.

So I had my three different lifestyles, now all I needed was snow. There’s no way to do this story without snow. There is no other way to evoke the haunting ending of Gabriel drifting off into semi-morbid thoughts in the dead of night while watching the snow fall outside his window. Nothing can capture the stillness of that moment like snow falling into a river in the black of night. Nothing. I spent way too much time trying to figure out how to do that. In the end I just said it was snowing and had my characters discuss it like it was normal and tried not to think about it. This inability on my part to figure out how to make clothes act like people actually helped me figure out what corners to cut (“The Dead” is some 15,000 words long). Basically, if I couldn’t figure out how to make a sweater do it, it got cut. For example, all scenes with food were cut, which helped. Then I took some characters that I didn’t have space to develop and merged them together into one character. In the original, Gabriel’s two aunts are throwing the party. In mine I just had an old t-shirt doing it because I didn’t have time to distinguish between two aunts, plus I had no idea how clothes might go about forming family trees, so instead of Sullivan’s aunt throwing the party I just made Miss Cobb of no relation. For that matter I don’t know what the party even is in my version. Whenever I was in doubt I just had my characters act like they knew what was going on and that it was perfectly normal and then I would sort of walk away from the conversation whistling with my hands in my pockets and hope that nobody noticed.

And that’s it. Simple, right? All I’ve got left to talk about is the parts where I was playing. There isn’t much. Time constraints and the fact that this whole project was mildly insane didn’t leave me much room for word play.

There’s the title. The Rags/The Dead. That’s probably pretty obvious.

There’s the character of Calla, the skirt. The opening line of “The Dead” has to do with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, and contains enough Joyce-isms to spend half an hour on. I’m willing to bet there’s a thesis about it out there somewhere. At any rate, the Calla is the most famous type of Lily. Lily, Calla. Calla, Lily. Other than that I just used the names that popped into my head as I was writing (more often than not these come off of the books on my bookshelf. It’s a little remarkable how many of the names of my characters, when strung together, form the authors, publishers, and editors of the books that are currently sitting to my right).

And that leaves Miss Cobb. I broke my streak of stories that contain smoking with this one (no idea how a sweater might go about smoking). But there was another streak I had going insofar as every one of the past three stories was set in Manhattan. Seeing as how the laundromat that sparked this story is located on the Upper West Side I saw no reason not to reference the city of New York. So there’s Miss Cobb. Sullivan is a sweater, Molly is a white cotton bra, Cutty is a pair of corduroy pants, Mr. Carreras is a black turtleneck, Calla is a skirt, and Miss Cobb is described as such: “Miss Cobb’s torso wore the mystic runes of the world: a pillar in black, then a set of red semicircles over a point. Underneath, again in black were vertical-diagonal-vertical, and finally the branch with two forks spreading out on top.” Miss Cobb is an “I Love New York” t-shirt.

Well then…that was long.

Comments

  1. Just responding to your first paragraph. I really think you are missing the point of the web here. You really should revise as you go and not feel ashamed of it. This isn’t print and that’s good. One of my frequent commenters gets mad at me when I fix something she points out to me, but… look… this is the web. It’s an iterative process.

    Check out Copyblogger.com for more on this point. The beauty of web publishing is we can keep trying till we get it right.

    Your readers aren’t better off because you leave them with something worse when you know it could be better.