‘Kansas’ by Antonya Nelson

Kansas by Antonya Nelson, 2006

The magic trick:

Giving us an array of characters, each of whom struggles to act in accordance with what they want

Another great Wichita story from Antonya Nelson.

This one is a remarkable balancing act between behavior and intentions. It seems that all of the characters in this story can’t get it right. They mean well but they act stupidly. Or, even more often, they act selfishly but wind up inadvertently doing some good. None of the six main characters here ever align word, deed and intent.

It makes them unhappy. It makes them stressed. Certainly, there is an aura of depression hanging over this house.

But it also makes it tough for the reader. It’s not easy to know these people. They’re shifting scene to scene, decision to decision. But that flawed consistency makes them infinitely more interesting to read about. And that’s quite a trick on Nelson’s part.  

The selection:

Midmorning, Emily rolled out of bed. In the kitchen she found the usual mess: Anna’s sloppy breakfast makings, eggshells, milk left out to spoil, as well as the residue of the previous night’s drinking – empty bottles and glasses, a crusty bowl of salsa, the tart odor of pickle juice, desiccated cheese rinds. Emily muttered as she ran hot water. She had forever been in this role: a mother first to her little sister, through their childhood and beyond, then to her husband, and then, of course, to Kay-Kay. Now, since Ian had declared bankruptcy and he, Anna, and Cherry Sue had moved in, she was a mother to her brother-in-law and her niece as well. And then there was Nana, who seemed more and more in need of mothering herself – unpleasant mothering, of the variety that involved wheedling and deception, and that would soon include feeding and diapering.

Responsibility was plaguing. Sometimes, to fight it, Emily was purposefully irresponsible – she drank too much.

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