April Short Fiction

Apr 21, 14:45 by John Frost
As usual: what did Bluejack hit? What did he miss? What were your favorites?
Apr 21, 15:55 by Chris Dodson
Re: "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence"

This was probably my favorite story of the month. Bluejack, did you catch all the WIZARD OF OZ references?
Apr 21, 16:32 by Bluejack
You know what, I totally missed that reference! (I hate it when that happens.)

Now I'll have to go back and re-read the story, but what was your spin on the Wizard of Oz connection? How does it change the sense of the story?
Apr 21, 18:00 by Bluejack
I was also quite wrong concerning the eating habits of sperm whales. Readers of the first version of this review may have noticed my ignorance, but thankfully, John let me put it in edit to the text on "Harpoon" -- under the proviso that I keep a confession of my original mistake in place. That edit has now been made.
Apr 21, 19:02 by Chris Dodson
This is partially copied from a really long post I made over in Ellen Datlow's "SCIFICTION 5" topic on Night Shade:

Here are all the WIZARD OF OZ references I found. There might have been more that I missed:

1. The "Baum" in the story's title refers to L. Frank Baum, writer of WIZARD.
2. Dot's full name is Dorothy Gale.
3. Dot is wearing red sneakers.
4. The city that Dot and Sid end up in is meant to be the Emerald City (lots of references to everything being green.)
5. Miss Goode=Glenda the Good Witch
6. There is a picture on the wall of the house, a woodcut print of a woman holding a fish. In the background, outside a window, a tornado is tearing up a dirt road.

THE WIZARD OF OZ was an allegorical fable about the Populist party's fight for financial independence from the gold standard, and the title of the Kessel story leads me to believe that it's primarily about Sid's fight for financial independence, as well as independence from Dot, from his pathetic life, and from the entropy of his world.

Sid seems to have a desperate need for control (as in the line, "That's the story of my life: me trying to save the rest of you—and the rest of you ignoring me" and the fact that he won't give Dot any matches even though he has them), and yet he falls in line with everything Dot says and does, rather like a lapdog. I think Sid is meant to be the Toto to Dot's Dorothy.
Apr 21, 20:20 by Bluejack
Wow! That's fascinating. It entirely blew past me at the time. I wonder if Kessel has a whole secretly encrypted message here, or whether he was just throwing in some references for fun.

I am sure your point about The Wizard of Oz being about independence from the gold standard is very relevant -- but we might need to find a real Baum scholar to put all the puzzle pieces together.
Apr 22, 20:09 by Mike Bailey
bluejack, I also had a take on this story that differed from your own. I discussed my ideas on the same SCIFICTION thread Chris mentioned above. Here it is, for your reference.


Warning: Overlong Post

Criticism of “The Baum Plan for Financial Independence” by John Kessel

I was very impressed with Kessel’s “Baum Plan”, and after glancing at his bio (and seeing his monster credentials) I wondered whether I should have the audacity to criticize the tale. Then I figured, Kessel puts his pants on one leg at a time, too, so what the heck, I’ll criticize his story. Then I thought, uh oh, maybe he doesn’t put them on one leg at a time. Maybe he lies on the floor or bed and does both legs at once. Then I thought, too much thinking about Kessel’s pants is weird. Better start writing the critique.

I feel that Kessel does a great job with this story, in so many ways, that it is hard for me to know where to begin. A casual reader might have read this story: Two trashy people ride in a strange subway to an even stranger terminal where they are given tons of cash. That casual reader would, in my opinion, really miss out on some great layers of this deceptively simple story.

In my opinion, Kessel begins strongly, following the advice I’m sure he gives his creative writing students, by tilting the reader into the story with the first sentence.
When I picked her up at the Stop 'n Shop on Route 28, Dot was wearing a short black skirt and red sneakers just like the ones she had taken from the bargain rack the night we broke into the Sears in Hendersonville five years earlier.
This sentence, a bit of a mouthful, not only piqued my interest, but also immediately began showing me the character traits of Dot and Sid. That’s doing a lot with the first sentence!

Like Chris Dodson, I felt Kessel loaded up “Baum Plan” with tons of yummy sentences that were a joy to read. Chris quoted some of my favorites, and here is another (about cigarettes):
Whenever my old man came in to clear her untouched lunch he asked her if he could have one, and mother would smile at him, eyes big, and pull two more coffin nails out of the red-and-white pack with her nicotine-stained fingers.

For me, though, a strong theme is what makes a great story, and I felt Kessel really delivered on theme. Whether the following was intentional on Kessel’s part, I do not know, but I thought he put a lot of effort into character building in order to drive home a powerful point later in the story. Since I think Sid communicated to me what some critics call “the moment of epiphany” late in the story, I will start by focusing on Kessel’s characterization of Sid.

Kessel starts showing us that Sid is basically an imperfect but good-hearted person in the second paragraph, which is critical for us to believe if we are to “get” the moral of this tale. Sid didn’t kill the Sears night watchman during the lark in the store, only gave him a concussion, and Sid admits that “a man has to take responsibility for his own actions” while also admitting that he has a weakness for Dot. We see Sid’s belief in accountability reinforced in the way he discards Roy’s notion of an exit door from reality, while admitting that “everyone dreams of an exit door sometimes.” Kessel continues to show Sid’s good nature by the way Sid fiercely confronts his father in a effort to protect his mother from the ravages of lung disease brought on by smoking:
As he bent over to put the tray on the counter, I snatched the cigarettes from his breast pocket and crushed them into bits over the plate of pears and cottage cheese…. That's the story of my life: me trying to save the rest of you—and the rest of you ignoring me.

Since Kessel so carefully establishes Sid’s character, we can imagine the effect on him when he looks out the window and sees that the luxuries of jade city are bought with the lives of the common folk:
The sun beat down pitilessly on citizens who went from street to street between the fine buildings with bowed heads and plodding steps. I saw a team of four men in purple shirts pulling a cart; I saw other men with sticks herd children down to a park; I saw vehicles rumble past tired street workers, kicking up clouds of yellow dust so thick that I could taste it.
We can imagine Sid identifying with the downtrodden, since he is one of the dregs of our own society, having come recently from prison. We can also picture Sid struggling with the idea of taking what he surely considers to be dirty money, his notions of accountability battling with his opportunity to take advantage of a honest-to-goodness exit door.

This all leads to the moment of epiphany at the end of the story:
"One person's dream come true is somebody else's nightmare," I said. "Somebody always has to pay." I had never thought that before, but as I spoke it I realized it was true.
I can imagine how taking the money might bother Sid for the rest of his life. I can see that as an ex bottom-rung-dweller Sid might always feel nagging guilt that his luxury was purchased at such steep cost to others. The fact that I can feel that way about Sid shows that Kessel really nailed the character. But alas, Sid did not make the noble choice. He says goodbye to Dot along with his scruples when he burns his clothes, an attempt to eradicate his history along with his guilt. It seems to me that the attempt does not quite succeed.

Now for the possible controversy: I think Kessel may have written an allegory here. Chris Dodson saw references to the Wizard of Oz, and since he pointed them out, now I see them too. But I think the more powerful message is a condemnation of how powerful western nations, and America in particular, live in relative luxury while the third world suffers.

My support for this thesis can be found in characterization. Sid is the tough yet caring, slightly homophobic, sucker-for-the-ladies everyman that represents the American male. Dot represents America as well. Muslim nations often express the sentiment that America is “the great whore,” and Dot, with her curvy hips, her “bright red lipstick and breath smelling of cigarettes,” her games on the Sear’s bed, and her ex lap-dancer history certainly fits the mold. Sid cares enough to be curious about how the jade city is run, and to feel bad about it, but doesn’t care enough to do the right thing. In the same way, Kessel may be implying that he feels Americans know that our concentration of wealth is not fair, and that we live on the backs of poor nations, but that even if we do care, we don’t care enough to take action – to make a difference.

I also think that the high technology, arrogance, and implied decadence of the jade city residents is supposed to be symbolic of America, or at least the world view of America.

Kessel’s response was (partially): I definitely had all the Oz references in mind. I'm a big fan of all the Oz books. The Third World reading Mike gives pleases me a great deal, since in my mind the story is about class, about those who have and those who don't and how those things can warp even the best hearted among us, though I did not have an allegory in mind.
Apr 23, 12:19 by Bluejack
Wow, thanks for reposting that here, Mike.

I wish I could undertake criticism in that kind of detail: I did pick up on a lot of the same impressive feats of style and craft that Kessel brought to this story, but simply didn't have space (or time -- they're one and the same, aren't they?) to go into that much detail in the column.

As for your allegorical conclusion, whether or not Kessel intended it, the strong writing often reveals itself by impressing different readers with different interpretations. I still think there was just a little something missing from the end, but both your analysis and Chris's have deepened my reading of it. Thanks!
Apr 23, 17:04 by Irina Khadiz
Yes, you go on long enough as it is, bluejack.

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