Rediscovering gems in the short fiction (almost) halfway through Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago

So I won’t keep myself from doing this, even only for my stubbornness against the Formalist school, trumpeting organic unity, problematizing it even prior to the potential readings: for what I have went through in the earliest of February 25, 2012 include almost the first half of Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago and consummating the threshold pronouncing that I am ¾ through Saramago’s Blindness.

For Dybek, which I happened to own only two days ago, and who is being compared to Hemingway and Joyce, masters of fiction I am fond of partly because of the moods in their stories, I can argue for an initial merit in this: making me read him immediately after purchase, in contrast to the fate of Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys or Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. His stories are set in Chicago, a foreign place, unlike the very familiar Session Road or Novaliches, and they will not allow geographical distance or familiarity to get in the way of tugging the readers closer to the narratives. In the first six stories I have read from this anthology, at least so far from them, and I am respecting chronology, there is no alienation; there is connection which I gauge based on my perceptions, reactions, and engaged interrogations of the stories.

In the short, opening story “Farwell,” I see a usual plot that I think will never grow old and whose evocations of inspiration or charm will highly depend on the scripter: departures and fleeting relationships. Dybek begins the first and last paragraphs with the same word, “Tonight’” and I think this is a technique used to mark the narrator’s passing through different points of time at the moment of enunciation, showing how something past can still bring beauty when viewed from far ahead. The narrator departs with a teacher he likes, and we saw how the two of them once shared a fleeting but beautiful bond.

But what I find cute here is the manner of downplaying the separation, without much appeal to emotion, with neatness, without a sense of making a big fuss out of it: “When the university did not renew his contract, he moved away suddenly” (5). This comes before the author hinted at the proximity of where the professors used to live, “Farwell,” and saying goodbye, as if it finally arrived at the heart of its point, as if to express it could be done nonchalantly because it frequently happens anyway, as if a fact of life, inevitable.

In “Chopin in Winter,” one of the longer stories, the music element is perhaps unsurprisingly key in the elocution of the message. Michael, the narrator, shared a building and subtle connections with Marcy, the daughter of their landlady who went to stay with her mother after being impregnated by a Black man. With subplots on racism in America and the afflictions of World War II on the family of soldiers left behind , the story shows how public relations, even familial, are limited by perhaps a lack of trust and understanding, seemingly basic verbs and nouns whose weight the words themselves cannot bear when applied in real life. And more importantly, how do we negotiate whom we trust and to what extent and who we understand and how are always influenced by the circumstances circumscribing us. The bias against black people of both Michael’s mother and Mrs. Kubiac, Marcy’s mother is surely triggered by an external factor and not something that just came out. With this, it can only be inferred that Mrs. Kubiac censured her daughter with her relationship with a black guy and forced her to stay with her in the apartment. Downcast and to a certain extent, incapacitated, Marcy had to find outlet for her emotions. So we have the piano.

Michael became a passive witness of Marcy’s decision to forge ahead, leave her mother and live with her Black partner. By listening to the music she played, Michael unknowingly had an access to her expression of feelings she would not rather put into words in public, for her mother, for instance, either because of the notion that it would go purposeless anyway or a plot of escape and rebellion is already brewing and that is where much of the focus is being put on. And again, that connection she shared with Michael, beginning when they had a little talk together and when she pasted her smile on his memory. That and no other chat followed, only her piano and his growing sensitivity to its sound. And how, when she left physically, Michael seemed to have continued sensing her presence in the apartment, by virtue of the silence she had left behind, taking the place of the music she used to play.

In the one-page “Lights,” Dybek was perhaps teasing, challenging his readers. But what I think he is telling is the surprisingly optimistic, or perhaps, consoling message: Hey, we are not alone. Just as much as we can expect people to assure our safety in the dark (i.e. in the story, as we drive), we can expect that someone else stays just nearby, doing exactly what we are doing. I was inclined to think that there was some danger in messages like that – messages that are too reassuring, if not downright positive, or happy, they can make us too complacent. But in times of economic crises, subtle interracial feuds and subtler deception in the media and politics, I’d prefer to concede that perhaps even momentary assurances can be welcomed, even, as if symbolically, only a page in a series of stories.

In “Death of the Right Fielder,” Dybek seems to be downplaying death, getting rid of the drama and the philosophy and puts premium on the game, in this case, baseball. A right fielder dies, instantaneously, inexplicably, but most of all, unceremoniously. Shortly after trying to figure out the cause of his death, the narrator went on ruminating about the possibilities in baseball. How some are lucky to be great in the sport even when they are above 40 while others die soon (and find themselves buried right there in the field) when they are just 17 and perhaps proven unavailing in the face of a potentially illustrious baseball career. There is some dulcet I find in there: how Dybek seems effortless in transposing the traditional value enjoyed by one idea or event (death) onto another (baseball) – one which we usually think of as prosaic.

In “Bottle Caps,” he would just pull off some O. Henry, letting go of a dagger in the end, but not after seemingly going about a laborious plot. In this story, he introduced to me really weird brothers: one is a bottle cap collector, which is relatively still normal and acceptable; and the other, an insect grave caretaker.

These are stories you would perhaps look for after form. In the pretentious ordinariness of the narrative, there would pop out details like that. Which in second thought now, I think works exactly the opposite of O. Henry’s technique. While O. Henry is the delightfully read master of the anticlimactic; Dybek would conjure a climax when everybody least expects it: When the older one caught his younger brother getting some of his bottle caps and even threatened him, the older guy was led to the backyard and there “he could see (his) bottle caps half buried…” Perhaps pressed for further clarification, the younger kid uttered: “ I’ve been using them as tombstones, in my insect graveyard” (41).

This is making me delve deeper, truthfully, and read further with gusto and mellowed anticipation of the rest of the stories.

So for Dybek tonight, I ended with “Blight,” I think one of the more well-known among the stories, and another one from the class of longer narratives. In thirty pages, I witnessed the erratic, but in a cute way, and hence engaging fellowship, no, friendship, of four boys: Deejo, Pepper, Ziggy and David, the narrator. There were a lot of fun moments: Pepper being detested by a girl from the neighborhood he is smitten with, but most notably and laughably when Deejo wrote something Pepper asked him to be given to Linda, the girl. Deejo had an awful mistake. Weak in spelling, he wrote this:

“I dream of my arms/around your waste.”

While even if this gets spelled correctly the message is somewhat indefinitely attractive, the heavier toll was perhaps brought by the misspelling. Deejo is also somewhat a blighted writer and he used to conceive the first sentence of his would-be novel which his friends liked when he read it aloud to them. It goes: The dawn rises like sick old men playing on the rooftops in their underwear. (50)” While this amused his friends, everything that succeeded it suggested only a downfall. Most charmingly laughable is that long, long second sentence about a fighting spider and caterpillar which is obviously hardly relevant to the first sentence. Worse, the two suddenly realize the futility of their quarrel and ended up being swopped down by a sparrow.  There are several other fun moments and I believe they help in effecting in David the eventual realization he would have in the story, consummating a transition in terms of the way he perceives his home town – from Blight to Blithe.

Despite the ruggedness, the seeming lack of class, of colorful effervescence, this is the place where he had the fondest of memories with his closest pals and those are some things. Travelling through seasons, growing up and coming to terms with new, positive things. In times when we often conclude “It’s just a matter of perspective,” the good memories he shared withn his buddies have definitely shaped David’s perspective into something that leans towards the positive.

Truth to say, lately, I have been least inclined and perhaps least interested in short stories of all forms of literature, with the novel finally gaining ground and ahead with quite some steps. I enjoyed the short stories we read during my undergraduate studies, and in fact, the book I would always cite as my most appreciated, Dubliners, is a collection of short stories. And Dead Stars too, and the Death of Ivan Ilyich (although classified as a novella) and the Last Judgment, and Atwood’s Happy Endings. But with novels suddenly springing from left and right and up and down with my new found fascination with contemporary authors (Dennis Johnson, Murakami, Bret Easton Ellis and Andre Dubus III) and rekindled pining for older ones (Joyce Carol Oates ), the short fiction type suddenly lagged behind. Plays – I have Shakespeare and Miller and Beckett, and the Greek tragedies and the nonverbal element and the wily engage of dialogues to turn to. Creative nonfiction – as they well abound today in the columnists of Kule (Agrava, Precioso) and then some Jessica Zafra and Sedaris and as with their resensitization of the everyday and their revelation of the seemingly ordinary, are also constantly among my preferences. Not to say that this is one of the genres where I  more dominantly tarry as a writer. And of course, poetry, which I think responds best to the challenge of literature, condensing and displacing here and there, in a matter of lines, stanzas. But with recent rereadings of Dubliners and now, Dybek getting into the picture, the short story genre is resurrecting. Shorter and more momentary than the novel, more flexible than poetry, and still giving voices to people and their happenstances, short fiction, as I can see, is staying to tempt me to flip the page. Dybek is indeed a decisive addition to make this push and the first six stories of his more prominent anthology, with their captivation of humor and hope, and trickery and failure, in sum, everything human, are all indicating of sustaining this interest to the genre I was almost forgetting until now.


Ang ating pangarap (revised version)

*salamat sa mga komento ni Rosalie Calpito para sa ewan kong pagbabago. Apprently, ganito dapat ang nangyayari sa mga tula-tula. 🙂

The sky is full of dreams; but you don’t know how to fly.

The killers, “This is your life”


Una, nasaan ang pangarap?

Nasa naglalakihan, nag-uumpugan,

Nagtataasang semento kung saan

ang mga Tao’y hindi mo kilala?

Nagbababad hapon hanggang umaga

Sa paulit-ulit na kapalaran?

O baka ito ay panaginip?

Ang nais maabot, marating,

Masilayan sa piling ng hangin,

Maamoy sa himpapawid.

Magsisimula na ang dilim.

Malamig ang kalsada.


Kung magpapatuloy ang pangangarap,

Saan ang pupuntahan?

Kung ang nais ay mapasama sa mga

Naghihingalong kaluluwa na nabubuhay

Matapos ang oras sa opisina,

At namamatay sa pagsapit ng umaga?

Ano ang hantungan ng mga nawawalan ng buhay

Para sa pangarap na barya?


At kung ito ang panaginip,

Paano gigising kung ang akala

Ay isang halina sa eksena?

Paanong gising ay nanaginip pa rin?

Paano kung ang nakikita ay

Hungkag, huwad, tulad ng

Larawang walang laman?


Ang ipinag-iisa ng pangarap,

At ng panaginip ay ito:

Parehong itinatakda,

Iginuguhit sa gunita,

Hindi nagmula sa sarili,

Sa bukal ng pagsamo, pagnanasa.


Pangalawa, marahil ay hindi

“hindi alam.”

Kung hindi:

“hindi kaya.”

Sapagkat ang sikmura’y walang laman,

At ang barong-barong ay ginambala ng panahon.

O ang ipinaskil ay may nakalagay na:

“at least college level.”

Ano ang ibig sabihin ng diploma?

Ano ba ang hitsura ng diploma?

Sapagkat ako ay maliit lamang.

At ito ang aking buhay.

Ang pangangarap ay para sa mahina,

Kung hindi bubunuin ng buto, at ihahakbang ng hininga.

At ang pananaginip ay para sa duwag.

Dahil kapag mulat ay nakaupo’t tulalag.

Ang naiwan ay paglipad.

Paglaladlad ng pakpak tungo sa hinaharap.

Hindi tungo sa toreng kanilang itinatag,

Kung hindi sa mga itinatago ng malalaking ulap.


February 10, 2012

Tragedy is for all: the baby after nights spend with Dubus III and his House of Sand and Fog

For this weekend starter that seems to be out of place because of nagging colds and dry cough, I will begin with Andre Dubus III and what I have gleaned from reading his 300 plus page novel.

Most of this: bleakness

But to begin right away with readings would be insulting to the overall experience, which albeit had been quite protracted, was inarguably a real delight. So let me tempt myself first in falling downright into affective fallacy, because what an experience reading his House of Sand and Fog truly became. I first tipped my feet on the everyday world of Kathy Nicolo and Lester Burdon and Colonel Behrani November last year, only to be pulled away by Denis Johnson and Alexander Solzhenitsyn during the holidays and returned to it with renewed enthusiasm starting the new year. In jeepney rides, in my first quarter chilly room, in the coming of dusk in Kalinga – this novel has been an engaging companion, stealing me away from the tremulous moments, making reading confusable with drinking coffee.

What drew me to this novel, lengthier compared to Johnson’s Nobody Move and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was its being character-centered. There was Kathy, suddenly homeless; it’s not just a house that has been taken away from her, but a home, an entire storage of a family’s memory, a precious inheritance from her father. There was Colonel Behrani, the fallen Persian immigrant who struggles to reclaim stature, and many more albeit in a foreign land, – pride for one’s self, respect from his wife and children, a sense of security. And there’s Lester, Kathy’s eventual lover, torn initially, and eventually compelled to split up a first marriage for her; later sealing a tragedy which perhaps, and I hope too, he did not regret at that point of encounter.

Their lives intertwined in that house Kathy’s father gave to her when he dies: Kathy losing it, Behrani buying it and trying to make huge profit out of it, and Lester trying to help Kathy win it back. The novel ended, and by that I meant that it has reached its last page, without any of them accomplishing what they sought at the onset. The colonel has died beside his wife, or perhaps has reached that supernatural dimension whose existence was made for him to believe by his faith. Lester was in jail, and Kathy, too, with her mother turning her back against her.

No optimism here

And this is not a time when we should invoke cheerfulness and the mantra of trying to look at the beauty of things. Because I do not doubt that pang crawling in me as I leafed through the last few pages of the book: one because of the unfolding tragedy right in my face and that the novel is ending and what happened to Kathy and Lester afterwards would just remain as guesses and imaginings to me.

The sorry outcome the novel lent on Kathy and Lester’s relationship, however centered on sex one may think it was (but I am beginning to think otherwise, now) was something that will bother a more or less engaged third person. In his lowest, a law enforcer turning into one punished for breaching it, Lester had two calls to make to perhaps say goodbye to a waning phase in his life and make the most in trying to mend the things he had left damaged in the streak of his errors. He dialed the number of Behrani’s residence, actually, and legally, Kathy’s, in the hope of talking to her, but all for naught. In these lines, I can only see Lester closing his eyes, turning his hopes into undistinguishable mutters, and their eventual failures into mellowed utterances of “shit:”

“By tonight, he’d imagined the two of them driving north in a rented car, maybe giddy for having just gotten away by a hair. Now he just wanted to hear her voice, a bit husky and unsure of itself. He just wanted to hear her say his name. But the phone kept ringing and no one was picking it up (342).”

Lester, falling. (Ron Eldard in this 2003 film adaptation of the novel)

I just know this feeling, when I keep saying, “Please just fucking answer the phone, even if we don’t talk for five seconds and more, just make me hear your voice, confirm to me you are still alive and sane and sound to press the answer key” – even at the pursuit of that tiny kind of connection, one could utter “shit” upon a failure. You are feeling like you have shared so much life with that person it fatally haunts you to fail in hearing her sigh, assuring yourself that she’s still breathing and hopefully well.

And Kathy had her moment of resignation as well, although seemingly a less difficult one, but definitely not something as easy as inhaling air:

“I think of Lester, his Toyota station wagon pulling away from the neon light of the El Rancho Motel, disappearing into the fog. There is a loosening warmth between my legs and I want him inside me again, but feel sure now I never will (364).”

This is approaching the last two paragraphs of the novel where perhaps Kathy tried to swerve away from a realization: that the new name “Remote” she has earned in the County Hospital is just tightly an apt one for her who always fumbled in taking control and regressed to being a tool, an implement to achieve something — a remote. How did she attempt to swerve? She went behind Jolene, one of the more famous persons in the hospital, perhaps like Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted, who gave her the Remote label, asked a smoke from her, most probably will do exactly what she used to do in those times of inner tension and confusion when she found out she’s losing her home, when Connie told her it would not be easy recovering it, when Lester has gone back to his family and she’s eaten by insecurity.

Jennifer Connelly is Kathy.

And Colonel Behrani was no longer here, already dead after clinging to his faith and trying to resurrect with his wife into another dimension. But nevertheless, he still shares the same tragedy that took full circle and engulfed him, just like what occurred to Kathy and Lester, as individuals, or as two in one.

Colonel Behrani and Nadi

And about his earthly death, alongside his wife, and probably his son too who had been shot by the police earlier, traditional readings could point out a traditional note: the eventual falling of an Asian immigrant in America while the American characters, despite kissing the soil from the ground, remains alive, still has the potential to go on and persist for something better.


What about the “cultural differences?”

Most of the times, I hated the Colonel for being too adamant and refusing to just surrender to Kathy what is rightfully hers. I was sort of on Lester’s side when he “threatened” the Colonel and tried to make him give up what is to be given up. Now, I am thinking that this depiction of him stems more from individual motivation and not some racial or cultural peculiarity. He was once a Colonel, keeping a deep renown in his country before the war displaced them; in Lester’s observations, he is someone who is used to giving orders. And after the fall, what can you likely expect from him but a macho reaction: a sense of shame he’d try to conceal as much as possible, a burning desire to reclaim all status symbols that are now gone. Even when he repulses the Americans and their way of living,

(“These people do not deserve what they have. When I first came to the United States, I expected to see more of the caliber of men I met in my business dealings in Tehran, the disciplines gentlemen of the military….. And of course the films and television programs imported from here showed to us only successful people, they were all attractive to the eye, dressed in the latest fashion…. Yes, there is more wealth here than anywhere in the world….And I am told that many family meals are eaten in front of the screen, a nd perhaps this explains the face of Americans, the eyes that never appear satisfied, at peace with their work, or the day God had given them… who are forever looking for their next source of distraction, entertainment, or sweet taste in the mouth (123-124),”

he unknowingly subscribes to their gods as well: material wealth above anything else.

But thankfully his wife, Nadereh, has another side to show — the motherly, which is perhaps universal, the nurturing spirit. She showed these several times: when Kathy stepped on some nails when she tried to stop the peons working on something on her house and when Kathy attempted to shoot herself and swallowed some of Nadereh’s pills. But even the Colonel would turn back and try to win some of the readers’ sympathy, unsurprisingly by unleashing that side of him as well, as he was the first to see Kathy in her car, pointing a gun at herself, he halted her, and in that light, has saved her life.

Nadereh, rescuing Kathy

In the seeming complexity of the scenarios where they find one another, more than cultures clashing, we can see a shared humanity among all of these characters. They all have the ability to feel sympathetic; they are all eager to pursue what they have set out for themselves. Which I think ultimately, downplays that side of the story, directing our attention more on the similar struggles and not the so-called differences. They all wanted to live, and live prosperously, and when tragedy reckons itself in the picture, no nationality or culture can be singled out as safe.

Only representations matter. And I think, if we follow this criterion, Dubus was able to be as objective as possible, again, focusing not on the differences, but on the sameness of fate. And perhaps, in the last note, that would give his work more merit.

Andre Dubus III

Doon sa malayo

Saan hihiga kung hindi sa

Humahalimuyak na kama?

Kung saan naubos ang Chips Delight,

Pringles at Nagaraya.

Gaano kalubak ang kalsada,

Na pinatag nang may pawis, nang may

Kurot sa sikmurang matandang


Kung ang bandila’y iwinawagayway.

Ito na ba ang ultimo ng paglaban?

Paano hihimlay kung hindi makapag-aral?

Kung kailangang magputa para makapag-exam?

Saan hihiga?

Saan magwawagayway?

Sa kalsada, sa piling ng alikabok at usok?

O sa parang na puno ng pag-asa,

Kasama ang ngiti ng bayang

Lagi kang hinihimok?


February 04, 2012

Muli, mula sa Photo archives ng Outcrop.


Let me speak of ghosts.

In your closet, they hide as you

Ride your car and meet the world

They sing songs you try to blur,

Scream secrets you try to muffle.

As you eat your supper or pray in the evening,

they sometimes die down

Only temporarily,

They find their way back, most heinously

In your jokes, in your hints,

In your darkest, longest, and finest poems.

And sometimes, that eases them off, but,

Never – altogether extinguished.


Ang ating pangarap

Kuha ito ni Jesa.

The sky is full of dreams; but you don’t know how to fly.

The Killers, “This is your life”

Una, nasaan ang pangarap?

Nasa naglalakihan, nag-uumpugan,

Nagtataasang semento kung saan

ang mga Tao’y hindi mo kilala?

Nagbababad hapon hanggang umaga

Sa paulit-ulit na kapalaran?

O baka ito ay panaginip?

Ang nais maabot, marating,

Masilayan sa piling ng hangin,

Maamoy sa himpapawid.

Magsisimula na ang dilim.

Malamig ang kalsada.


Pangalawa, marahil ay hindi

“hindi alam.”

Kung hindi:

“hindi kaya.”

Sapagkat ang sikmura’y walang laman,

At ang barong-barong ay ginambala ng panahon.

O ang ipinaskil ay may nakalagay na:

“at least college level.”

Ano ang ibig sabihin ng diploma?

Ano ba ang hitsura ng diploma?


Sapagkat ako ay maliit lamang.

At ito ang aking buhay.

Ngunit bakit ka magkakasya sa pangarap, o panaginip?

Kung pwede mong, kung maaari

Nating ukitin ang hinaharap?

Of all reasons to stay awake at night — the moon.

*I just have to do things like this, every once in a while. When does poetry lays down and politics take a back seat. Where is the limit of science, philosophy, Essence, cogito, signifiance and the equator? The moon is her and I try not to smoke. When I give in, I know I am alone. (a disclaimer, a bat swinging and hitting something other than the aim, a surprising bat emerging out to the wilderness) 

First, no one shall touch you, and inflict you harm, and redefine nightmares that troubles you with no end at night.

My lungs will sing songs for you, how they are maimed by cigarette sticks in your absence, how they resonate with the will to live and see you again avoiding the sun with your eyes while your arms bathe under it. And then I will listen to that giggle of yours, in the lifeless spaces except yours. They won’t be fake ones, because we will learn to master the pursuit of genuineness – cry when we want to, when we have to, blind to the others’ gaze, spirited to just spill ourselves and dilute all the restraints staying deep us. You will be giggling because life is beautiful – what with all the colors of fog welcoming the night; the inks of pen reminding us we can write our biography, our history, our failures and successes; the dregs on the bottom of the coffe mugs telling us we can already have a refill; rainbows speaking about change; our hands speaking about our agencies, our potential for activity.

I will sing Slide Away to you, as we get into the brink of falling asleep, as the soles of our feet estimate the roughness of the ground, as we find ways, figuring out what to do amidst the collision of imperatives and desires, chasing the sun in the coldness of July and rains sputtering on the roof and waking our senses. We won’t need to fret about the weather. I stare at your palms and navigate the plains of softness and security and I know I will be sane and fine. I wish you would just blush or ask me What the hell Ivan?! And I could cinch, and speak for our nearness. As you pass through the stones and the dusts of the concrete, I would ask if I could turn you into “us” – walking side by side in the pavement while people gaze, eat their popcorns, throw surmises, mind our business we often silently keep to ourselves, unnamed, limited to interpretation. If someone accuses you of libel, we would not retract, but keep affirming, standing on our grounds. We have not only truth and good intentions and the assurance of being in the right; we have “us” and all the others behind us. If someone makes you think you should be dropping a crucial subject. I would strive to learn logarithms and derivatives as fast as possible and talk about them with you while we find space for ourselves in every waning sunlight.

Tonight, I don’t need Jessie Day and her white teeth in New Girl. I want you, talking to me like all the trust has ran out except for what lies between us, you, studying the shape of the veins in my palms like a scholar inspects artifacts buried for centuries under the dark pits of soil. Again, the tragedy is that these are only words. No more songs and cuteness and romanticism now, I will breathe the hours away until I sense you again, living with the stretches of the moments, near me; I will hear your dances again, smell the wrinkles in your face, look at your whimpers, taste your 7pm resignation, touch the once untouchable arteries beneath your dress. We will find better ways, and make better days. And we will get rid of poems, you will have me, and I will have your indecisiveness and fear of names, telling me to stay; that is yours and I will stay.

This is what we share, I believe, I'd like to believe, among many other things.


Kung paano maglaro sa kalsada

O bata sa tabi ng bangketa

Matuto kang maglaro at magsaya

Tumbahin ang lata, ‘wag maging preso

Ilabas ang holen, asinta ay panuorin

Yumakap sa langit, kumaripas sa lupa

Kung bato ay natalo, wag magpapapitik

Kung ikaw ay bulag, ba’t hindi ka dumilat?

Kung sasabihing dilat, ba’t nagpapabarat?

Habul-habulan, maliwanag ang buwan,

Pagbilang kong tatlo,

Ikaw ang asintado.

Tapusin ang hingal, pawis ay punasan,

Huminto sa kalsada,

Kahit hindi iyan palaruan.


*Kuha mula sa photo archives ng Outcrop, opisyal na pahayagan ng mga mag-aaral ng UP Baguio

Don’t smoke while someone is in the agony of finding her brother: on “The Tracey Fragments”

Since I met Ellen Page on “Juno” a few years ago, she has been sort of under my radar and I have been googling her every now and then for significant updates. While she was still teeny but exuding more spunk and certitude in Juno as a girl who got pregnant quit early, she was more tentative and fidgety as Tracey Berkowitz in The Tracey Fragments, another movie which came out in 2007, the same year Juno was released. For this one, I intend to focus on The Tracey Fragments and how, as I thought of it just now, she resembles Holden Caulfield there, driven by the hankering for adventure, of meandering beyond the limits only to see the phoniness and transiency of things, and reverting to what is more stable, more real.

Tracey is 15, and she is not very far from most of her peers of that age, only that their eminent trait of ambivalence and feigned firmness was more noted in her. She compared her family to a hole, and perhaps from that we were less surprised at her dispositions and actions. Her father, as she said, linked her to this word – accident. Also her mother, who smokes gazillions a day and is usually stuck on the tv. And perhaps undeniably the only source of light in the dim hole – her younger brother, Sonny, whom she hypnotized to bark like a dog, and which at the onset of the film, is missing —

Just like Tracey’s sense of who she is, why is she breathing under the buildings of America, why do her schoolmates dislike her – the common teenage problem usually compared to the debts of even the biggest economies.

The film was mostly a quest, for Sonny and of herself. And in its course, Tracey met people whom perhaps she thought would help her in securing a more stable ground for herself. But as if inviting her to slit her wrist and watch the dripping of blood out of her own skin, they were of no avail.

The guy from Toronto got no keys: drugs, pot, violence and Tracey seeing off-limits:

Sometimes, trust them.

There was Lance whom she met on a subway and who told her he would her in looking for Sonny. In Lance, she only saw the violence that seems inevitably correspondent to underground “business associations,” which by the way she responded after seeing Lance’s “boss” clobber him for not paying a debt, can be inferred as something she is not yet ready to take.

The optimism was fanned for a longer time only because Lance has this way of reassuring her that she could find Sonny and that he is not dead, as she thought of and insisted might be the case several times. As he put it, “I’m fucking Lance and I’d help you find your brother.” All these went off just as the blizzard passed and went.


No Prince Charmings and last-minute kisses here, only him:

It's better if you stay that way, kid.

There’s Billy Zero, the wrong “hero” (read: his surname, or whatever you call that thing after his name) who at one point was a campus phenom and treated Tracey like a rare gem. In Billy Zero, she had her hormones seething like melting water in a small pot but is yet to want to be put off. With him, she had those teenage dreams where one vividly imagines before going to sleep actually sleeping and building some genuine relationship with. It was fluke, and one that died down easily.

It should be noted that it was because of this affair with Billy Zero that Tracey lost Sonny. She was with him playing in the woods, running with him, painting happiness like she did not in the majority of the film. But there came Billy, just being there and she was lured by his gravity, joining him in a quickie in his car, only to be abandoned after – and losing a brother.

Where is the crisis?

Her parents have long been keeping in their minds that she could have a borderline disorder – something that can be easily associated with teenagers who are extremely confused and cannot bear the confusion they seek to expand their borders and look for the answers. She was at once vehement with her psychiatrist Dr. Heker only to be gentler and more relaxed after, albeit still a rather feigned one; albeit her fingers are still fighting one another and manifesting her uneasiness.

After the family knew about Sonny’s disappearance, the tension that has always been with them only went more uncontrollable, more splashing like the rains have not stopped for weeks the waters in the rivers are going to swallow a reckless ambulant. Who among the family was the reckless one, who has to take the bulk of the blame? On a grim confrontation, her father pointed to Tracy, “Look at what you’ve done to Mommy, she’s destroyed,” before blurting some more that they are in a crisis.

Tracey would spill out her angst and just would not succumb like a sheep does to its herder: everything’s a fucking crisis, as if to say: we have been here all along and Sonny being gone is only its ultimate effect, the most harrowing. So they have to find him. And Tracey tried.

A personal resolution

And with the film rolling to its end, Tracey left the bus she took after getting out of Lance’s place, with a blanket covering her body, and her voice, monstrous in its firmness, that they have to find him, that no one can stop her, that no one can make her stand still. She saw Billy Zero with his friends as she walked, but ignored him. She continued walking, more relaxed, with hardly a trace of being distraught or in panic, perhaps only a more tempered optimism, or a well-founded knowledge that all she mainly needs to set forth meaningfully in her life is herself, not a pot-lover from Toronto or a troubled campus icon. And the screen is complete once and for all, unlike most of the earlier parts where everything is fragmented, like broken pieces of paper going on top of the older ones.

She is not whole, Sonny is yet to be found, but at least she had some piece of clarity, all that is left to do is take care of that and continue faring.

What I found sweet

And what I found sweet is this: Sonny giving Tracey a necklace, despite their parent’s slight reproaches, and Tracey obviously valuing that gift present from her brother. Which leads me back to the earlier comparison of Tracey Berkowitz to Holden Caulfield: in the thick of all the confusions and stress brought by the pressures of their environment, they were able to carve a niche of solitude and contentment with the aid of their younger siblings, where there is genuine companionship and warmth and the sense that this won’t break apart. And I thank this because I have this shot of Tracey Berkowitz:

This is lovely.