Staff reader Chris Feeney talks with Jack Gain, author of the short story “Pollard Trees” (NER 43.3), about memory, first person point of view, and how fiction can unfamiliarize the familiar.
CF: “Pollard Trees,” and its narrator, immediately introduces a struggle of memory, beginning with “I have forgotten nearly all of it,” before delving into the final week of a relationship, spent on vacation in Germany. The narrator also seems to remember, sometimes in great detail, what he had once forgotten, so his telling can read less as a concentrated act and more a rumination on memory itself. A balancing act of “I have forgotten” and “I remember” spans the story. Besides offering a delicate picture of an ostensibly doomed relationship, what is the narrator trying to do with this catalogue of remembrance? What force is driving this meticulous look at something that has passed?
JG: There is an anecdote in Kristin Ross’s book about the uprisings in France during May 1968. Ross is giving a talk about the événements, as they’re called, when she is interrupted by a German sociologist who says something to the effect of, “Nothing happened in Paris in 1968. Everything happened in Prague.”
What he meant was that the events in Paris didn’t matter because they didn’t lead to any clear political change, whereas the uprising in Prague ultimately led to the fall of communism. In fact, not just that they didn’t matter, but that they didn’t even happen.
Ross tells the anecdote because it reflects a very prevalent way of conceiving of history: The only things worth remembering are the things that led teleologically to the current state of affairs, not those which pointed towards other possible futures.
I was interested in how this way of thinking applies to personal histories. We may remember all the ways that a relationship seemed doomed because it ultimately ended and, in fact, it’s hard not to think that way. But it’s a very limited view.
In the story, the narrator is taking an inventory of what he can and can’t remember about those few days in Berlin. It’s an imaginary exercise because, naturally, you can’t recount things that you don’t remember.
But that conceit lets us see what actually happened. It allows the likelihood that the relationship was doomed to live for a few scenes alongside the possibility that it wasn’t.
CF: The title of your story refers to a landscaping technique where trees are cut back to promote growth, and these trees become a central component of the narrative. Of course, “growth” is something we quickly associate with romantic relationships. The narrator, through a game he plays with his girlfriend, is essentially tasked with remembering the name of this practice, something he is unable to do. It becomes a sort of quest. What is the narrator grappling with as he tries to remember the peculiar name of these trees?
JG: It is a peculiar name. They’re peculiar looking things as well. You can somehow tell, just by looking at them, that they’re the result of some weird medieval practice.
In the story, the name of the trees is one of those things which is on the tip of your tongue. You can look at it a thousand different ways but you just can’t remember the word.
They’re also the subject of a rule he agrees to follow in that guessing game he’s playing with his girlfriend: you’re allowed to look up something you don’t know but not something you do know but can’t remember.
That rule is like the commitment of being in a relationship in the sense that you could, in theory, break it whenever you wanted to. Your phone is in your pocket the whole time.
And that’s something that the narrator is struggling with. This is a guy who maybe hasn’t been this far into a relationship before and he’s itching to know the answers to everything.
CF: I thought there was a remarkable level of authorial control in choosing what your narrator discussed and for how long. The story contains a lot of different photographs, buildings, street names, letters, and other artifacts. We move from The Bauhaus Archive to the Berlin U-Bahn to “the museum of the SS,” but the tone of the narration remains level and feels true to the protagonist. What are your thoughts on the relationship that exists between a writer and the first-person point of view they’ve created? Is it difficult to decide what a narrator will notice and what they might miss?
JG: In first person, you can be absorbed by the more immediate details of a character’s experience.
The narrator in this story is feeling out the shape of things that he is part of, but which are much larger than him—his relationship, the city they’re in, a certain juncture in history.
By way of analogy, writers are also constantly sorting through details, trying to make them add up to a coherent whole. I find fiction really satisfying when it deals with ideas which you can only partially comprehend because they’re at the limits of your verbal understanding. The medium allows you to communicate something which you wouldn’t be able to just say outright.
You might have a feeling about something you’ve experienced (an interaction with someone, an encounter with a painting or whatever) which is crude and inchoate but nonetheless insightful. And this is one thing I have in mind when I’m thinking of the details that would constitute a character’s point of view.
CF: Yes, the feelings of the narrator, however “inchoate,” are still insightful and feel as if they are building into a larger whole—a mosaic of a person confronted by decision. In my reading, I hung on the line “I have forgotten the word gestalt.” Is there a “gestalt” quality in what the narrator is relaying to us, something we can discern but he cannot?
JG: Yeah, definitely.
Strictly speaking, in the story, he is trying to imagine what gestalt means purely because the word doesn’t have an English translation.
But you’re right. There’s a larger irony, I think. To those of us who grew up at the “end of history,” the radical ideas of the 20th century—ideas about the mind, or art, or new forms of society—seem inconceivable now, even though we live among constant reminders of them.
We are living among the sum of their parts without being able to conceive of the imaginary whole.
CF: A couple years ago, you published the story “Communism Doesn’t Work.” This story also centers around a relationship, and although its underlying themes are different, both stories take care to invest their readers in the rocky emotional lives of their characters. In your opinion, what makes a good relationship story? How do we get a reader to care about the bond between two fictional people and its consequences, and is there a particular benefit in exploring relationships through short fiction?
JG: My friend, Mike, who is a screenwriter, once told me that if you’re writing a horror film, you should make it about something that genuinely scares you. I think that applies to all types of fiction, mutatis mutandis. There needs to be some true feeling that you start from.
To your last question, I think romantic relationships are well-suited to short fiction because they tend to entail a lot of feelings which are universal. And short stories rely on that kind of emotional shorthand because they have to set the rules of their own telling really quickly.
“Pollard Trees” starts with the narrator telling you that he intends to break up with his girlfriend. That’s a situation anyone can imagine. You accept it as a given, partly because it comes at the start of the story, and then, follow it from there as that intention becomes complicated.
The other story you mentioned, “Communism Doesn’t Work,” starts with the fact that a lady from the Jobcentre is visiting the flat of the narrator and his ex, who are still temporarily living together. She’s visiting to establish when exactly they broke up, which will determine the outcome of the narrator’s benefits claim. It’s a bureaucratic premise, but it has very intimate implications that anyone could recognize, because nearly everyone has been through a break up.
CF: You referenced a line from your story earlier, that “You can look up something you don’t know. But not something you don’t remember.” In the context of the story, it’s a ground rule for the game the characters play. It may also introduce the outside force of the Digital Age just as “Communism Doesn’t Work” introduces the outside force of bureaucracy. If so, is it important to include these larger realities in some way? Can a writer use them to their benefit?
JG: I don’t know if I could say that those are important to include, necessarily, since they’re such large abstract things.
But maybe fiction can make some of the social forces that we take for granted visible in a particular light, by giving us an “unfamiliar image of a familiar thing.”
I generally try to remember something I’ve forgotten rather than googling it, but usually I cave.
Chris Feeney is a fiction writer from upstate New York and recent graduate of Middlebury College. He currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he reads submissions for the New England Review and works as a writing advisor.