Thomas Pierce: “Ba Baboon”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Thomas Pierce’s “Ba Baboon” was originally published in the June 2, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Betsy

“Ba Baboon,” by Thomas Pierce is terrific. It goes down easy, but it is thought provoking. I read each sentence curious to know more, curious to see what was going to happen, afraid of what was going to happen, and curious to know whether either of the two main characters would come to their senses, so to speak.

Mary and Brooks are brother and sister, but one is probably in her thirties and the other in his forties. Suspense is part of the story telling: it opens with the two of them trapped in a closet. Pierce slows the story down by alternating the focus of the narrative between the brother and sister. They tell the story by turns, talking first about themselves, and then about each other. Brooks, the older one, the successful one, has always taken care of Mary. Now the tables are turned, however, because Brooks is slowly recovering from a serious brain injury. He says of himself:

Sure, he can fry a few eggs, but only if there was someone there to help him, to keep him on task, to clean up the mess when his hands fail him, to calm him down when he loses his temper, to reel him in.

Mary is the one doing all this for a month while the real caretaker, their mother, is away.

The story plays out in suspense, mystery, slow revelations, and finally, a kind of resolution. The story revolves around the fact that the two of them are trapped in this house and need to get out. Or they are trapped in their thinking and need to get out. Or both. I couldn’t put it down. What I like about this story, and I like it immensely, is that while it is talking about assault, threat, fear, and brain injury. It is also talking about identity and responsibility, and about how we “accept” revelations we have about ourselves.

Pierce’s Page-Turner interview with Cressida Leyshon is wonderfully good. He talks about how he works, and he alludes to the deeper meanings he intends for the story to have. He also talks about how he hopes that the resolutions in his stories offer the possibility of hope, or as he puts it, light. This matters to me. I am old enough to know that hope is a necessity, even if it is a flickering thing. I used to find the “Ice Storm” type of story bracing, and I still do, because there is a value in recognizing just how bad things really are. But now, I find a flicker of hope a necessity. One of our relatives gave birth in a cattle car while returning from years of imprisonment in Siberia. Life can be dreadful. We, in turn, can be dreadful to others, can be dead wrong about what is right. One must look straight at these things. But to do so, I find there must also be a flicker of hope. So I welcome Thomas Pierce as well as the flatly dark view.

Pierce is immensely gifted. He can tell a yarn that draws you in, he can put a new spin on a couple of familiar situations, and he can convince you that the traps he’s put his people in are traps they might be able to spring.

Read the story, read the Page-Turner interview, and then also read “The Critics,” which was published in The Atlantic, read “Grasshopper Kings,” which was published in The Missouri Review, and read “Why We Ate Mud,” which was published by Oxford American. That’s what I’m going to do.

I also recommend Jullianne Ballou’s interview with Pierce in Oxford American. And I recommend “Shirley Temple Three,” which we reviewed here a couple of years ago after it appeared in the New Yorker. After I’ve finished my reading, and you yours, I look forward, a little later in the week, to more conversation about this author.

9 thoughts on “Thomas Pierce: “Ba Baboon””

  1. Archer says:

    I liked Thomas Pierce’s other story in the New Yorker, “Shirley Temple Three”, which I believe was published while he was an MFA student. I also read another story of his in the Oxford American, called “Why We Ate Mud”, which I thought was very good:

    http://www.oxfordamerican.org/articles/2013/oct/22/issue-82-why-we-ate-mud/

    I enjoyed this new one too, though I found it a little less focused than the other two. Pierce is good at mining comedy and pathos from strange and inventive premises. However, I thought the perspective shifts could have been handled a bit more adeptly (on first reading, I didn’t fully realize there were perspective shifts; the “voices” sounded so similar). And there was one important plot point that I found implausible and contrived. I won’t give it away, but it has to do with the title of the story. You’ll know what I mean.

    On a slightly related note, much has been made of the widespread influence of Alice Munro. Apparently, she’s the most taught author in creative writing classes. But, if that’s the case, I’d wager to guess that George Saunders is the second-most taught. I see his influence in many writers, and I see it a lot in Pierce, particularly the tone, which is a kind of deadpan melancholy. As I said, I like Pierce, and I like a number of the writers who have obviously been influenced by Munro, but sometimes it feels a bit derivative. (When I first read Saunders, it felt so new and fresh.) I wonder if others had the same impression?

  2. I am determined to stop falling behind — and this piece is definitely compelling, I liked “Shirley Temple Three” so much.

  3. Betsy says:

    The focus in this story is on the extent of the damage done to Brooks when he was assaulted with a brick. He has a lot of problems – he can’t button his shirt, he can’t remember what just happened, he can’t stay on task, and he is easily upset. And yet, the story gives a lot of hope that his recovery is in progress. It seems possible that while he may never be “the old Brooks” who ran a company, he may steadily improve. After all, he’s able to coordinate peeing in a bottle. After all, he does his exercises – one of the key elements to any recovery. After all, he makes a plan – he distracts the dogs. After all, he uses a kind of charm and honesty to calm down the girl he discovers in her room, and she rewards him with the “safe word”. There is a kind of resilience to him.

    The story takes its time to reveal Brooks to us, and his situation is so compelling that initially the reader focuses on him.

    But on a second reading, it is Mary that fills the screen. There is a recklessness in her that needs containment. At the end of the story, we have hope for Brooks, but there’s not as much for her.

    This is a woman who is unattached in he thirties, embarks upon a thrill-seeking affair with a man she knows to be even more reckless than herself. Apparently, she has a history of recklessness, as Brooks has over a hundred cards from her (that he has saved) in which she thanks him for rescuing her. He is her “goose” that lays “the golden eggs”. She even calls him Goosie.

    In addition to recklessness, there is a jumpy inattention in her. On a day when Brooks is scheduled to have memory testing, she neglects to give him breakfast. On this same day, when he would probably need reassurance, she neglects to iron his shirt. Like their mother, there’s an element in her of being “out-of-town” when it comes to other people.

    Her own executive brain center does not function very well, given that she decides not only to break into a house, she also decides to bring her injured brother along.

    During the peculiar sex-taping that she consents to having, she imagines herself detached from the scene (much as someone who is being sexually assaulted is forced to do). She thinks in turns of space and planets, and she thinks of herself as “not fit for habitation”.

    Her situation is pretty dark. She does not appear to have developed any skills at fencing herself in, and depends instead on being rescued, time after time. One can only hope that as she watches the tapes she has stolen, she will learn something about the nature of her own recklessness.

    So I really enjoyed being so distracted with Brooks’s problems and with the dogs that I barely noticed Mary – that there’s something really the matter with her.

    Several of Pierce’s other stories (as I mentioned above) are available on-line. I enjoyed all of them, and in particular, “The Critics” (in the Atlantic) was strange and wonderful.

    I want to point out that all three of these online stories were available in a format that was very easy to read. The Atlantic has a web site that values appearances: this year old story is not cached in an “archive” that reads like micro-fiche. The Atlantic preserves its materials in gorgeous print that is a joy to read.

    Pierce talks about enjoying doing his research first and then doing the writing. He got the dog-brain right: dogs best process commands that are plosive – thus the names and the “safe command” with all those B’s. His takes on the injured brain and the recklessly unfenced brain read as true. But I also loved the way the “lost password” functioned in this story.

    Thomas Pierce has burst on the scene like a rocket. I think he needs a good editor, though. “Ba Baboon” feels to me to have a couple of unnecessary glitches. Brooks is “months into his recovery” but he thinks of his scalp as having “scabby scars”. This appears early and makes the reader think he is a week or two into recovery. But not – it’s months. The dogs are attack dogs, but Brooks has time to get up the stairs. These are minor irregularities requiring a little tinkering. As a whole, however, the story has for me the shimmer of something alive. The “coffin-small” adulthood that both Brooks and Mary have managed to attain is fascinating, and their inability to see themselves is both all too human and unique to them.

  4. Okay, I have finished this one, but it may take me some time to get my thoughts in order. While I liked it, I’m not sure how much. Certainly right now I’m a bigger fan of “Shirley Temple Three.”

  5. Betsy says:

    Trevor, I look forward to your reaction to this story.

    There is an odd darkness to this story. Brooks indicates there is no sexual connection between him and his sister when he says he doesn’t want to see a sex tape that “no brother should see”. Nevertheless, the story ends with the idea that brother and sister are going to watch all the tapes.

    In broad outline, neither brother or sister has been able to establish a meaningful relationship, even though both are already in middle age. If not explicitly sexual, Brooks’s relationship with Mary is so enmeshed as to perhaps prohibit other meaningful relationships.

    So while it seems hopeful that Brooks is showing some signs of recovery from his brain injury, the Brooks-Mary element feels dark. It’s as if, during their adventure in Wynn’s house, he has reimposed himself as rescuer, despite the injury.

    But now they’re both making bad decisions, if you take into account what effect the tapes may have on the two of them – either in terms of anger or desire.

  6. danthelawyer says:

    After a small glitch at the beginning, I really liked this story. I get unreasonably held up by sentence structure in a way no one else does, so this sentence had me fooled for a minute: “Brooks examines the cans on the shelf level with his head. . .” I wondered how he could examine things with his head, as opposed to, say, using his eyes.

    But once I got past that, the story had me in its grip. Pacing is under-appreciated, I think, and Pierce managed it superbly.

    I was left contemplating whether maybe Wynn had actually erased the tape of Mary, just as he had said he’d done, and Brooks and Mary were going to sit there watching videos of Wynns kids. That would drive home Betsy’s point about how the story is much more about Mary and her defects (rather than just about Brooks and his defects) than it initially appears.

    On the need for an editor, I agree that I couldn’t help thinking about the dogs chasing Brooks up the stairs. A disappointing flaw in an otherwise fine story.

  7. danthelawyer says:

    Wow. I’ve now gone back and re-read ST3 and the Critics, which were quite wonderful. In fact, two of the more memorable stories I’ve read in the last few years. Certainly, Mr. Pierce is one to watch.

    On a side note, I’m sorry to say this confirms that I have always much preferred the short fiction in the Atlantic to that in the New Yorker. When the Atlantic sadly stopped running fiction regularly, I stopped my subscription (after having been a loyal subscriber for several decades). I recently re-upped, but their fiction is still scattered. I’m reminded now that Nic Pizzolatto, creator of True Detectives, first came to my attention with his piece Ghost-Birds in 2003. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/10/ghost-birds/302804/. I was so struck by this that I bought the collection it ultimately appeared in, “Between Here and the Yellow Sea,” and the novel that followed, “Galveston”. I can’t think of the last time a story in the New Yorker has inspired similar efforts.

    But I keep coming back here to learn why it should!

  8. Roger says:

    One mundane question about this story: do people really use “tapes” any more to store videos? Isn’t everything stored digitally now?

    As for the story as a whole, I thought Pierce raised some thoughtful questions about the nature of human identity and its susceptibility to being changed by a whack in the head. But all the rest of it — the madcap adventures in the house, Mary’s foolishness in being filmed in a compromising situation, the break-in and the efforts to escape — struck me as sophomoric. I was rooting for the dogs.

  9. Ken says:

    I really liked the mixture of tones–slapstick, pathos, suspense etc. The premise of being locked in the pantry reminded me of something from an old screwball comedy but is intertwined with much darker stuff. I was constantly in suspense yet it also was moving and there was a nice mystery to it. Did the girl really give Brooks the command? When will someone eat the urine contaminated olive oil? Will Wynn now be discovered as an adulterer? Will brother and sister watch a sex tape? Nice ambiguities yet enough is resolved to satisfy. I was very impressed with this story.

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