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Caitlin Horrocks: “Sun City”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Caitlin Horrocks’ “Sun City” was originally published in the October 24, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

I had never heard of Caitlin Horrocks until this morning.  She’s published in several other literary magazines (including a few I read often, like The Paris Review, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, and The Kenyon Review, though apparently not in one of the issues I read), so I’m looking forward to her debut in this magazine and to becoming acquainted with her work.  I will be posting thoughts here eventually, but feel free to leave any thoughts in the comments.

6 thoughts on “Caitlin Horrocks: “Sun City””

  1. Betsy says:

    In Caitlin Horrock’s masterful “Sun City”, Vera has suddenly died at 73. Her twenty-something grand-daughter Rose flies down to help sort things out and show the flag. Rose knows that her own mother (Vera’s only daughter) will not go. To me, the story confronts a young woman who, in the face of loss, is unceasingly busy and questioning, and who seems unable to be still in the face of grief. The story is told through Rose, and at first she in very convincing. She has everything under control, or, almost under control. Only gradually do we realize that if she is going to actually be here in this hellish hot underworld of death and mystery, she needs to pause for the moment and listen to the moment and let the moment be. So yes, the story had its Buddhist element for me.

    On the surface, Rose’s thinking appears cool and ordered, appears to be the natural kind of thinking that occurs when life’s lake is turned over by a death. In fact, however, there is a chaotic element to the way Rose is acting. In the face of death, Rose is very busy.

    She seems to have a lot to get done, and she is so busy that we do not at first notice that we have heard nothing of Vera’s funeral and very little of the circumstances of her death. It seems to have been a long time since Rose has been at Vera’s, and she has arrived in a kind of businesslike mood, wanting some answers. Although she is there to sort things out, she does not seem to be aware that part of sorting things out is finding something to remember Vera by. It is as if Rose has no idea that she might find her grandmother’s death elementally a shock, or elementally painful. Rose seems, in fact, somewhat numb to the possibility that she herself might feel grief or why. She does want answers, though, she does want answers.

    There is little real love between the grandmother, the daughter and the grand-daughter. Rose’s mother hated Vera, and while Rose does not appear to understand whether she herself ever loved her grandmother, she is also dimly aware of being vaguely grateful to her for her occasional grandmotherly efforts. Rose has arrived on the scene wondering if her grandmother had ever experienced love, knowing full well she had experienced hate, and Rose is very distracted by the possibility that her grandmother may have “wasted her life”, one of her grandmother’s favorite labels for other people, including Rose.

    Vera has left, in addition to a great deal of junk, a roommate, Bev. Rose seems to have decided that she needs to know if Bev and Vera had been lovers. Rose herself is gay, but she has had only a series of lovers who didn’t stick. What seems to motivate Rose is the desire to dig the answer out of Bev, as if Vera and Bev being lovers in a physical sense would be the only way Rose can understand her grandmother having experienced love.

    Rose thinks of herself as very well-adjusted, having felt a cool acceptance of her gay self, and a somewhat cool acceptance of her success as a creative and successful bartender. She assures herself that she is comparatively more comfortable in her identity than other people.

    What appears to be missing in Rose is any recognition of what love actually looks like, or what role it might actually play. It slowly dawns on the reader that Bev is possessed by a grief so intense that her only comfort seems to be the country music that sounds as if the singer has been “bitten by an animal”. Rose can make no sense of Bev’s behavior, nor of her music. Where we hear grief, Rose hears cacophony, obstinacy and distance.

    Rose appears to be living in a conciousness ordered by labels. Identity is purely sexual. Motherhood and daughterhood can be marked by hatred. Bev’s uncooperative silence is irritating to Rose, and Bev’s clumsy swimming, which may also be a clumsy attempt at solace, is funny to Rose, given how large a woman Bev is, as if her largeness makes her being in the pool wrong, or inappropriate. As it is, the pool, her country music, and her rum and cokes are all the ritual that Bev seems to have with which to face death.

    The story slowly moves to its resolution, however, one in which Bev’s actions slowly draw Rose into a recognition that love may be a more complicated relationship than just merely the product of two sexual identities hooking up, and that grief may be an emotion that is poorly expressed, at least at first, in words.

    The story’s mysteries give it its resonance and its reality. The nature of Bev and Vera’s relationship, the nature of Rose’s mother’s hatred, and just what the necklace which Bev is wearing says about Bev and Vera’s relationship: none of these are solved by the story.

    What matters in the story, in the end, is not all these questions. What actually matters is whether or not Rose can listen to what she is hearing, listen to what Bev is communicating, and let it be. What actually matters is whether Rose can still her mind enough to let the grief just be, in all its mystery, whether she can hear it for a moment and share it for a moment with Bev.

    The story is written in a familiar and straightforward form, complete with the familiar form of metaphor to lend the story music. There is more to say about the water, the alcohol, the necklace, the stuff, and the bloodied feet. (Yes, more bloody feet!) What moves me about this story, though, is the way it uses the familiar form to say something I haven’t read before in quite this same way – that sometimes we are too busy to recognize the gestures of love for what they actually are, that sometimes we are too unpracticed at love to understand how elemental it can be, and that most of the time, grief is an emotion that sounds like someone who has been bitten by an animal.

    I liked this story for its take, its honesty, its music, and its simplicity.

  2. Trevor says:

    Good to hear from you Betsy! I still haven’t read this one (or your comment, therefore), though I really enjoyed the first paragraph — great image!

  3. Aaron says:

    I don’t know that I agree that this story is about the Zen of stillness, but I’ll agree that there are familiar elements elegantly repackaged in a form that feels fresh. To me, this was an excellent debut, one that worked in quite a lot of feelings, from Iris’s repressed hatred to Bev’s repressed love, to say nothing of the distance and closeness that Rose experienced with Vera. For me, the telling line is thus: “They had all figured out a way to live around, rather than directly with, one another–the restaurant reviews mailed to Vera, the notes of congratulations that Vera then sent to Rose.” It’s passive-aggressive storytelling, layers that remain hidden even as you unpeel them, and as usual, I’ve written more here: http://bit.ly/sJhyZM

  4. Ken says:

    I liked this a lot. At first, I was thinking the two were sisters and it took a while to sort out the details which is a style that encourages active reading. In fact, I found much of this oblique in an interesting way and constantly surprising and also not at all concluded. A few things have been learned but there’s no end to life after all. What’s with the sudden seeming nonsense of “rubble rubble” in one of Rose’s sentences to Bev?

  5. Aaron says:

    Ken, if I remember correctly, she’s talking about Bev’s drinking of alcohol which happens to be in a McDonald’s Hamburglar glass (I have one of those myself). I believe she’s attempting to crack a joke by saying something like “You’re cut off,” and then making the Hamburglar sound, which was “Robble robble.”

    Does that help?

  6. Ken says:

    Yes. Thanks. I didn’t get that reference.

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