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July1999
Midnight Magic
by Bobbie Ann Mason
Bill: Hi everybody and welcome back to the bookclub at KET and our summer reading selection for you this month is Bobbie Ann Mason's collection of short stories entitled Midnight Magic and joining me to discuss the stories is Cait.
Cait: Hi
Bill: And Rochelle.
Rochelle: Hello.
Bill: Jonathan
Jonathan: Hi, Bill
Bill: And Dava
Dava: Hi
Bill: The stories begin and Bobbie Ann Mason sort of gives us I think a real pathway to understanding the stories and I think Cait you said a few minutes ago that it also helps to after you have read the stories to go back and read the introduction again but she says in the introduction. Like me these characters are emerging from a rural way of life that is fast disappearing and they are plunging into the future at a rapid saunter wondering where they are going to end up. I realize we are making the journey together and that I am privileged to discover there are loves and sorrows and confusions. I want to see how they are going to face the future and I'm excited to meet them at a major intersection. It makes me hopeful. Bobbie Ann says that and my question to you to open up uh are these characters hopeful? Don't everybody jump in at once.
  [Everyone laughs]
Rochelle: Well you know that's a tough question to start because you have to know the characters to know that and some of the stories I didn't get to know them enough I wanted more. I sometimes felt like I was a voyeur without a cause. Sort of seeing these uncanny glimpses of things that you know how perceptive she is that she can capture those things and some of them were from my life but I didn't know enough about the characters to feel comfortable seeing those things in some instances. Uh there were a couple of stories where that wasn't true and I felt right at home like I was walking into the living room of an old friend but for some of them I really wanted more and I think its not her fault but mine that uh this is the first Bobbie Ann Mason book I have ever read. Any of her work that I have ever read and so I was really expecting but my expectations were up here and it could have been like perfect and I don't know if I would have treated it well.
Cait: Hmm, I sort of disagree I think that uh well I just appreciate the fact about her writing that she doesn't try to draw conclusions for you. And you know she is not preaching at you and she just I'm I get that I kind of let at the stories with a sense that she has a really genuine affection for the characters and I really appreciate that about her writing.

Jonathan:
I uh if I can just come in I think its interesting that she says in the introduction Bill which you read that she is she is glad to meet these characters on their journey because its almost as if you know for her characters have a life of their own. As if you know in the stories you sometimes feel that the stories end and she doesn't know how they are going to turn out so, therefore, the story ends in a slightly deliberately inconclusive fashion because she sort of leaving it there and the characters will go on living and you know she doesn't know where they are going to go and she often leaves them at a moment of dilemma or moment of decision or indecision uh because they sort of have a life of their own for the author. And I think that speaks to the issue you are talking about Cait they way in which.
Cait: But that.

Jonathan:
She has an affection for them but she also doesn't want to control them so completely that she gives them pat endings.
Cait: Right, in the same she says in the introduction in fact, that uh she feels that she has something to learn from them. From these characters as well.
Rochelle: I think we are talking about two different things though. I'm not talking about the endings or wanting her to draw conclusions uh when we read Scissors, Paper, Rock I felt like I knew those characters even though I only got to get pieces of their lives and pieces of their interactions with people and it may be a different style of writing but in some of the stories I didn't get that feeling. I didn't want her to tell me what would happen to them or where they were going. I just wanted a little bit more of them.
Cait: Hmm
Jonathan: Hmm
Bill: Dava, what about the characters do you think they were all cut some from the same cloth? Are there differences in each of them that stand out or is the significance that they're really all very much the same - in a number of the stories certainly not all of them?
Dava: Well I do think they all are very much the same and in a lot of the stories I get the characters confused because of that. It seems they are all in the same kind of ball game facing the same dilemmas. They are all at a place where they yeah they don't know what's happening next it its almost an aimlessness about all of them but the thing is its like everybody finds this in their life sometime and its like we are all.
Bill: Exactly.
Dava: We are all part of this and I don't know what happens to them but all these issues are things that eventually get resolved. But it just takes years.
Bill: I think that's one of the things that uh I learned through just looking at the stories again. Not just reading them and putting the book aside and I know a lot of readers would probably do that but there is really not anything extraordinary about them. But yet at the same time it's their daily life and the same things that all of us go through that really make them quite unique.
Rochelle: But I think there were a couple of extraordinary people. But for the most part everything else was about extraordinary moments in lives that are like ours.

Jonathan:
I think that as far as the molding of Sam that its a real slice of life kind of book. Each of the stories is about ordinary working people in western Kentucky for the most part uh many of them are in their thirties or forties, they are couples, they are having trouble with their marriages - in some cases they are separated. The children are being shared between the mother and the father and there are all sorts of complexities arising from that and that is usually the case in these stories. You have that sort of scenario and I think that is a kind of landscape that Mason knows and can understand and can write well about. You know, and so far as them being all the same is concerned, that's connected to the fact that she said 'yes this is my social landscape this is what I'm going to write about and I think I do it well' and I think she does do it well.
Dava: One of the reasons I think she does it so well is because part of this landscape it consists of the de-inter thoughts of the characters its you know a lot of things she says about the characters it doesn't really matter to the over all story. It's like why is that even in there but then you realize that is how you think. I mean I have an example to read, its really poignant I think. It's from Offerings and if I could find it I would read it for you.
  [Everyone laughs]
Bill: You have got a lot of bookmarks in there.
Dava: I have got those nice bookmarks looking good. This is at the very end of the story when Sandra and her Mom are standing by the pond and it just says, "Mama throws her cigarette in the pond and a duck splashes. The night is peaceful and Sandra thinks of the thousands of large golden garden spiders hiding in the field. In the early morning the dew shines on their trampolines and she can imagine bouncing with an excited spring from web to web all the way up the hill to the woods." And then the story ends. I think that's just beautiful.
Rochelle: And that is a perfect ending.
Dava: Yeah. That's how you think.
Cait: I thought that was a really nice story. She seemed to be more in touch with the natural world than she did with humans.
Bill: But I think that what Jonathan pointed out with the confusion that some of the characters face in their daily lives and this constant sort of grappling at reaching for answers and that sort of thing, and again I think that's as you pointed out those are the characters that that Bobbie Ann Mason knows so well. Those are the people that she remembers from growing up in Kentucky and that she went away and thought about and began to write about again. You know there is a portion of that sort of confusion with life that's in Shiloh that I'd like to read. The characters are Leroy and Norma Jean, Shiloh, of course, the Civil War battlefield, uh the the trip that they make to the battlefield, and there is a conversation toward the end of the story where Leroy says "'Cornith is where mama eloped to,' says Norma Jean. They sit in silence and stare at the cemetery for the Union dead and beyond at a tall cluster of trees. Campers are parked nearby bumper to bumper and small children in bright clothing are cavorting and squealing. Norma Jean wads up the cake wrapper and squeezes it tightly in her hand. Without looking at Leroy she says, 'I want to leave you.' Leroy takes a bottle of Coke out of the cooler and flips off the cap. He holds the bottle poised near his mouth but can not remember to take a drink. Finally he says, 'No you don't.' 'Yes, I do.' 'I won't let you.' 'You can't stop me.' 'Don't do that to me.'" And it goes on and Leroy sums up by saying, "...the cemetery, a green slope dotted with white markers, looks like a subdivision site." Leroy is trying to comprehend that his marriage is breaking up but for some reason he is wondering about white slabs in a graveyard. So in this very traumatic emotional part of their lives where they are eventually we don't know that they do divorce. He is struggling with how to come to grips with that himself so I think that she has a real unique ability of sort of taking the ordinary.
Bill: and letting you sort of get involved in those lives and like I said a minute ago you know that they are not extraordinary. Has anybody got another example that you'd like to...
Jonathan: Go ahead Rochele.
Rochelle: Well when you were talking about characters. There was one character who I felt was extraordinary in uh in an ordinary way and it was George Ann the preacher's wife uh in The Retreat. She doesn't want to go to this retreat and her husband the minister, of course, wants to go and as a couple and in a Christian church you do your duty. But she gets there and there are so many things in this story but what she does is goes down to the basement of this retreat so of you know plays hooky and finds uh something that is fascinating to her uh George Ann goes to the basement of the lodge to buy a Coke from a machine but she finds herself drawn to the electronic games along the wall. She puts a quarter in one of the machines The Galaxian she is a Galaxian with a rocket ship something like the Enterprise on Star Trek firing at a convoy of fleeing multi-colored aliens. When her missiles hit them they make satisfying little bursts of color. Suddenly as she is firing away three of them two red ships and one yellow ship zoom down the screen and blow up her ship. She keeps on firing and firing until she goes through all her quarters after supper George Ann removes her name badge and escapes to the basement again. Shelby has gone to the evening service but she told him she had a headache. She has five dollars worth of quarters and she loses two of them before she can regain her control. And it goes on and on where she spends hours in this basement and then George Ann spends most of the rest of the retreat playing Galaxian. She doesn't see the trucker again this guy that she talked to. Eventually Shelby finds her in the basement, she has lost track of time and she has spent all their reserve cash. Shelby is treating her like a mental case. When she tries to explain to him how it feels to play the game he looks at her indulgently that way he looks at shut-ins when he takes them baskets of fruit. You forget everything but who you are George Ann tells him, your mind leaves your body. Shelby looks depressed as t hey drive home he says what can I do to make you happy. I thought that is such a telling moment in millions of different homes and all different types of places where a husband and a wife in this case Shelby and George Ann aren't communicating with each other and the way she connects with her husband is in the basement of a retreat away from their home and church and then he gets it. Its just this amazing ability to - like Dava said - get below the surface and get to what's really there. But I felt like I was eavesdropping.
Bill: Well and maybe that's uh what she wanted you to do.
Rochelle: It could be a good thing.
Bill: In fact she sort of admits that that she's doing that herself. Some of some critics thought have said about her writing in the short stories uh and I understand she doesn't really like this term that they are sort of K-Mart realism. That these are they are so ordinary and so there is such a sameness about them that they that they are flat and uninteresting. Uh did you find that.

Jonathan:
Well, I didn't find them uninteresting. I think I understand the term K-Mart realism because uh she she's very realistic in terms of her settings. She includes brand names, she includes the kinds and dates of the car the guy owns. She is very good at describing people's clothes uh the colors of the clothes uh the colors of their hair the way they are sitting, what is written on the front of the baseball cap, etc. etc. So in terms of setting I can see the realism is there . K-Mart I can see also because again this is her landscape of shall we say lower middle class working class Kentucky uh but I feel that it is not uninteresting because the psychological realism is the other side of her realism. That is it describes the settings which is the externals but it also describes I think the way people think. The way the way the mind works. Uh for instance the passage you read when they were in Shilo she just came out of the blue I'm going to leave you and he was totally shocked. He wasn't expecting that. And in a sense the reader wasn't except we can see why she wants to leave him because there has been a whole build up of tension all along in the story you know and but I think and then and then of course then he starts thinking about the white slabs. He's not thinking about what she has said and I think sometimes that's the way people's minds work.
Cait: Uh huh.

Jonathan:
You hear something and then you end up thinking about something else so I think she is quite good at this you know representing the way people's minds work and that is interesting.
Cait: Yeah, I think uh there is one story called I think its Coyotes where the girl is uh she works in a print lab I think and she her boyfriend finds her really fascinating because she tells stories about the peoples whose pictures she looks at every day and I think I think that is sort of what Bobbie does is uh just like she takes a little photograph of people and then she makes up stories about it and just goes on from there.
Bill: Well I think that's a you know those are the unique things about it. One of the interesting techniques that I found uh that that again has been sort of not controversial but certainly a point of some conversation is the ending of some of the stories that all of a sudden they just drop and you are not sure where they are going. Maybe two examples in the title story Midnight Magic - which by the way is about a car that is named Midnight Magic - we'll tell everybody that but uh you know all of a sudden in at the end of that story there is a body involved. There is a dead body involved and you think where in the world did this come from and what is this doing it doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the story but then uh in another selection let's say uh maybe Retreats as someone maybe going to read from that later or is that .
Rochelle: That was on my, oh yeah that was mine.
Bill: That was yours,
Rochelle: I just read that
Bill: But the end of that story there is some finality there with the symbolism of uh of decapitating a chicken or hen or whatever that happens to be and using that as sort of the end of one portion of the protagonist life and going on to something else so the ends did you find that too that that some of the stories just were so abrupt that its sort of jarring to you.
Rochelle: Well since you brought up Midnight Magic let me say I didn't think the body was extraneous.
Bill: Oh.
Rochelle: I thought that the point was his reaction to the body.
Bill: Yeah.
Rochelle: What little bit I got to learn about Steve which is what led me to my original statement about how I just felt like I didn't know enough. I didn't get to know him so much until he found this body and he has to make the choice of whether to go and call somebody and say there is this body or keep going. And you learn so much from a person about how they handle a crisis or an unexpected you know huge trauma. Finding a body in the road is pretty huge trauma and whether he would stop or keep going so I didn't think it was extraneous. I just really wanted to know a little more.

Jonathan:
Well I agree with that I think that the ending was interesting uh because he's in the call box making the phone call to say I saw a body on the highway and he's very afraid of revealing his identity in case he gets arrested as a suspect in the homicide. So he is very cagey about what he says to the person presumably a 911 or something. And but even as he is making the phone call he's looking at his car and he's thinking about his car and that's similar.
Rochelle: Like the graveyard.

Jonathan:
It's a little bit like the graveyard because if I could just read that ending, because it's a good example of these inconclusive endings. "The women's voice is asking..., 'Sir?' she says. 'Are you there sir?'" because he hasn't replied to a question. "His head buzzes from the beer. On his knuckle is a blood blister he doesn't know where he got." Okay so for that moment he is thinking where did I get that. And [Laughs]

Jonathan:
[continuing to read] "Steve studies his car through the door of the phone book. It's idling, jerkily, like a panting dog. It speeds up, then kicks down. His muffler has been groiwng throatier, making an impressive drag-race rumble. It's the power of Midnight Magic, the sound of his heart."

Now that's the narrator speaking but I think she the narrator is trying to represent what he is thinking and again I think its part of the psychological realism of her that this guy is not ethically heroic. You know he makes the decision to report on the body but you know it doesn't make him a good person kind of thing you know. Because ultimately he still is very much wrapped up in his own little world.

Bill: Uh huh.
Cait: Uh huh.
Dava: It doesn't seem to matter to me whether or not she paints a clear ending or not because I think each story just gives you a clear enough picture of who the character is and then its like you can choose whether or not you want to be a part of that character. Whether you want to think about like when I read Midnight Magic I was like Steve is just greasy.
  [Everyone laughs]
Dava: I don't really care for him and I didn't really care for the story because he was just to just like wasted youth personified it seemed.
Bill: Uh huh.
Dava: But then other stories I welcomed the character and you know I thought about his or her situation the endings don't seem to matter I just like that way she paints a character.
Bill: Did you have something uh from one of the other stories we haven't uh read.
Cait: I was going to read from Sorghum which I thought was interesting because that was one of the stories where she dealt with class issues. Do you all remember that story? That uh she uh goes her she meets she's married but she meets a man who takes her to this dinner with his hunting buddies where they uh they fix all the game that they have killed over the year for this one dinner and she dresses up in this really bad red dress and she's totally out of place and uh I just thought this was a very funny passage too. Uh but just her observations because this is so surreal this particular scene is very surreal where she is sitting down to dinner with these people and at the dinner table two forks no finger bowls Liz sat between Ed and Jo and across from a man in a black curly wig that sat on his head askew. A small pink plastic goose marked each place setting. The centerpiece of the table was an enormous duck decoy resting on a bed of cabbage leaves, the curly kind. The duck had artificial flowers sprouting out of the holes on its back and a smug expression. Liz noticed a woman using her fingers to pick out the cherries in her fruit cocktail and she realized that if you had enough money it didn't matter how you behaved. (laughs) The thought was comforting and it make her feel a little reckless. Maybe if Liz used bad manners they would just think she was being original. The woman eating with her fingers wore a Derby hat and reminded Liz of Susan St. James on Kate and Allie. There were five men and five women that dates it a little doesn't it.
Bill: I don't remember it.
Cait: There were five men and five women at the table and Liz couldn't keep their names straight because most of them reminded her of someone else. Then she almost shrieked as she turned to face a platter of little birds posed exactly like tiny roast turkeys they were quail. Welcome to our critter dinner Nancy said to Liz.
Bill: Critter dinner.
  [Everyone laughs]
Bill: Bobbie Ann Mason has been to that that wild game dinner a couple of times.
Cait: Oh really.
Bill: Well no I'm just thinking.
  [Everyone laughs]
Bill: To write like that. You know one of the other interesting techniques that she uses is this present tense voice. Uh that and I don't know I'd like to hear your reaction to that a lot of people would think that that maybe that's distracting to a degree but then it really it sort of puts you in the action so to speak. Its not past tense and I liked it.

Jonathan:
I also think it helps with the dialog because then it says you know she is doing this and then and then and then you have dialog and the dialog is in the present tense and the narration is in the present tense so it makes the whole story kind of immediate.
 Rochelle: It helps puts you there.
 Jonathan: It helps put you there.

Jonathan:
Uh and uh you know its interesting because all of the stories are in the present tense and there is very little sense of the future you know which gets to what you are talking about what are the futures of these people what is their future. What hope is there for them.
Jonathan: What future is there for them.
Rochelle: That's Bill's question.
Jonathan: Yeah.
Rochelle: I don't really I didn't I was never concerned about their future or where they were going because there lives are like mine who knows where I'm going. I mean I like that she does something sort of avant-garde with letting you sort of imagine wherever you think they might go because that's what they have to do. Uh I just wish there were more characters that spoke to me sort of like the characters did in The Retreat with this minister's wife. Then the other one the uh Drawing Names uh for Christmas that that was my house except it was you know not a black persons house and we wouldn't have called chocolate candy what Pat did but you know I just there were things that connect with you and when I first started trying to read it I thought maybe its because I'm not from Kentucky. I could understand the critics thinking they were flat because some of the stories were like wait a minute these are the same people. Oh no they are not because this is happening and I felt like I wasn't I was either given a short shrift or wasn't paying as much attention. I had to read some twice I read The Retreat twice and then all of a sudden I realized I was meeting George Ann but I didn't meet her the first time through I had to stop.
Bill: I think you are right about that.
Rochelle: Had to stop and start.
Bill: That's what I thought.

Jonathan:
That is to say none of them speak in speeches. You know nobody gives a speech you know like a George Bernard Shaw character.
Bill: Oh no.
Jonathan: Characters give speeches, this is what I think.
Rochelle: I would hate that.

Jonathan:
No nobody gives that in fact sometimes its quite the opposite sometimes its almost a Hemmingwayesque stripped down dialog you know. What are you doing today oh I am going down to the you know the gas pump you know do you want some coffee yeah okay. That kind of very stripped down muted dialog its very your are right
Rochelle: I think was important.
Jonathan: Its not very revealing in a sense.
Rochelle: Oh but I loved that the dialog was spare.
Jonathan: Yeah.
Rochelle: And that she used it only when necessary.
Jonathan: Yeah, yeah
Rochelle: I just I just wish I could tell you what it was. I just wanted for example like with Midnight Magic the book is named for that story and I thought it was one of the least effective.
Bill: Uh huh.
Rochelle: Stories in the whole book. If I can say it that way.
Cait: I think that's why they put it first maybe.
Rochelle: To get it out of the way.
Cait: I don't know. [laughs]
Cait: Well it seemed like the least evolved of the stories sort of or it and I found it just a little disturbing.
Rochelle: Well see it got me to a bad start because I went oh my God are they all going to be like this.
Cait: It was choppy. The writing was very choppy.
Jonathan: My question for you
Cait: Which is how he does.
Jonathan: its connected to that story Midnight Magic is about this guy he is a little shiftless.
Bill: Greasy.
Jonathan: Greasy,
  [Everyone laughs]

Jonathan:
And a lot of the men it seems to me in the book are either kind of weak or lacking in direction.
Cait: Or gone.
Rochelle: depends on.

Jonathan:
The women on the other hand uh it tends to be much more feisty. I think the uh author's sympathy is much more with the woman.
Rochelle: I think it depends on the kind of reader you are the kind of woman you are. When I saw some of these characters I thought they were men in need of help. But these are all men who depend on a woman somehow so they are not necessarily totally irresponsible because most of them worked at something but there was just always the sense that there lives were not complete without whoever the woman was in their life. Like Shelby could have gone off to another church and done whatever he wanted to, George Ann did not want to do that. And I doubt if he would ever leave her.
Cait: The exception would be the story uh New Way Format where he kind of experienced the transformation and went on with his wife when she moved away from her.
Rochelle: Yeah.

Jonathan:
Well you know that's interesting because Bobbie Ann Mason makes him an attractive character in contrast with his wife who is depicted as a very irresponsible callow, callous you know air head twenty year old. You know she is so wrapped up in her life and narcissistic that its easy to like him and not or to see that he he's a man of integrity and she's you know got problems.
Bill: What's it say about...
Be sure to read on for August's Bookclub @ KET with Come and Go, Molly Snow by Mary Ann Taylor-Hall. And don't forget to check the KET website at KET.org for more information about this book, the author, the viewer's reactions and a list of other bookclub selections. Remember you can join the bookclub any time. The address is KET.org an affiliate of Kentucky.com
Bill: What moved me I think that's what makes a lot of these stories very real.
Cait: Didn't you think this story you brought up Drawing Names.
Rochelle: Uh huh.
Cait: Uh I thought that would make a great one act play.
Rochelle: Oh God wouldn't it ever.
Cait: That that story was really great she really drew that out perfectly, I thought.
Rochelle: Plus my grandfather is sort of like Pappy is now in a wheelchair and everything everybody comes over for dinner and they have had to draw names because they don't have a lot of money. Mom goes to......

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