Mary Coin. Marisa Silver.

Silver, Marisa. Mary Coin. Penguin Random House (Blue Rider), 2013. F; 10/13.

I ran across this author reading her powerful short story Tiny Meaningless Things in the New Yorker (October 24, 2022). Silver has published collections of short stories but the one I read (Alone With You) seemed varied in its dramatic impact. But this book was tremendous although it’s one of those that start out as a straightforward little-bit tedious historical narrative. But it grows like a building with a plain foundation that morphs out dazzling unexpected aspects on the upper floors.

There is a historic centre in the form of a famous photograph by Dorothea Lange called Migrant Mother, of a migrant labourer woman in 1932, with two of her children. That woman transported into fiction is Silver’s titular Mary Coin and Lange is fictional photographer Vera Dare, the image in the story becoming as famous as the historic one:

There’s something important about the way the children hide their faces behind her.

Decades subsequent to Mary’s life in the dirty 1930s Walker Dodge is a history prof, grandson of a wealthy orchard owner in California whose son encountered Mary struggling as a piecework picker trying to keep her children alive. Walker reflects that he’s told his students over the years that we “look but (we) don’t see.” and that “(y)ou have to see past looking.” He finds a copy of the old famous photograph in a book as he’s clearing out the family house after his father’s death, and envisions an understanding of what happened back in the 1930s when his dad and Mary met.

The famous picture is a re-represented image of what the imagination sees: it “had been effective because every single person who looked at it had to decide whose side he was on.” As the imagination sees it also does and although the central image was a picture “the truth was as much in the way a woman arranged her hair or rubbed a stain off her child’s chin before allowing the picture to be taken. The truth was often a performance of an idea of truth.” (My emphasis)

Silver knows how to surprise with imagery like the photographer who woke people up with a beautiful terrifying photograph. Talking as she is dying of cancer to her now grown daughter Ellie Mary thinks:

…her curls jumped around like little girls desperate to go to the bathroom. Mary felt a sadness open up inside her not on account of the foolish disease that was making a repeat appearance but because of how dearly Ellie wanted those curls when she was a girl.

Confronting an elderly relative in a nursing home “(the) man’s silence makes Walker feel as if he is on a disastrous first date.”

Endurance as a theme in fiction sometimes feels a bit self-referential for me. I can get impatient with the trials of the likes of the Joads or Shuggie Bain. I’m not real proud of this because I’m sure it reveals some failure of the milk of human sympathy.  My sentiment seems like how I react to fiction that centers or relies on illness or popularly horrifying things like sexual harassment or homophobia (both of which I am as disgusted by as anyone). But this story had me feeling for Mary Coin and her family.

Marisa Silver represents catastrophe and its strange paradoxical significance by confidently walking the line between callousness and sentimentality without ever putting a foot wrong. I don’t admire that only because it’s a very difficult thing to do, but because here, to seize attention and force seeing not just looking, it works too.

Great minds think alike. Silver reframes a famous old photograph. And I like to imagine she was colloquializing Damasio (“You exist as a mental being when primordial stories are being told, and only then; as long as primordial stories are being told, and only then. You are the music while the music lasts.”) when she says, “ …what living (is), after all (is) a trick played on fate for as long as you (can) pull it off.” Such stuff as dreams are made on.

This is a great read. 9.1/9.5

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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