- Before and After
On a visit to New York, my wife and I happened to see Alec Baldwin pacing back and forth talking on a cell phone outside a Fifth Avenue apartment building, which led me to wonder aloud what his most memorable acting role was. The first movie I thought of was one of his less celebrated, early ones, Prelude to a Kiss (1992). In it, a conservative man working in publishing falls in love with a woman bartender, who at their wedding kisses an elderly man and magically swaps souls with him. It’s a seriocomic melodrama in which the old man (played by Sydney Walker) with the soul of the young woman, ends up living with the Alec Baldwin character, who learns to love and accept his wife in her new body. The movie is memorable because it bravely holds on to its high concept. It does so despite the awkwardness of young Alec Baldwin loving and kissing and recognizing as his soul mate someone who looks like an old guy on the verge of death. The film is about the inevitability of change; the paradoxical immutability of the ongoing before and after of our lives; and the fact that to live happily, we must learn to accept the relentless, indeed sometimes sensational, realities of change.
Like all the themes of literature and art, mutability is fascinating because it is both a perennial reality and something of a mystery. Beth Ann Fennelly’s micromemoirs in this issue are studies in the fact that the significance and meaning of life events—whether or not they seem important at the moment—can only be discovered in hindsight. A [End Page 5] conversation on a plane, a bad college job waiting tables, a small splinter of gravel in the author’s hand: all are occasions first observed in oddly precise detail and afterward remembered in ways that convey a deeper, veiled significance. Elizabeth Rogers, in her essay “One Person Means Alone,” experiences the power and even threat of moment-to-moment observation when she teaches English in China. The experience for her was a “new phase of my life, where I felt exposed all the time.” Living and teaching in Taigu, she has to adjust to a culture in which solitude is looked at with suspicion and the living quarters make personal space and time hard to come by. China, she finds, is ferociously social. “Very little prepared me for the level of social responsibility and interconnectedness that came with moving to Taigu,” she writes. Her feeling of exposure is heightened by her worry that students and colleagues will discover that she is a lesbian.
The fiction in this issue includes two stories directly about change, one comic and the other serious, one about sudden transformation and the other about long-term unfolding and evolution. Gabe Herron’s comic story “The Oracle of Denny’s” asks whether a traumatic shock or injury might actually turn us into somebody better. The narrator’s neurologist friend Rob falls from a rock-climbing wall and receives a brain injury. Old Rob, a scientist, becomes New Rob, believer in past-life regressions, reincarnation, jam bands, and yoga. When New Rob convinces the narrator to consult a soothsayer who waitresses at Denny’s as her day job, the two friends eventually get an interesting answer to that question, but it’s one that still leaves them wondering. Siobhan Phillips’s “War” is an elegant and powerful story about a driven young scholar at the cusp of the millennium who divides the chronology of her life into a clear before and after. “Before” is the year spent on a fellowship at Oxford. There she meets Seth, a talented graduate of the Naval Academy, whose commitment to work matches her own, though he fits more smoothly into the group of mostly affluent scholars on fellowship. The “after” is the years following 9/11, when reports of the Iraq war carnage paralyze her work and make her conclude that war “destroys people, even those who live” and “makes work and faith and effort meaningless.”
In Maria Anderson’s Jeffrey E. Smith Prize finalist story “Kalispell,” Craig...