Laird Barron's "The Lagerstatte", an expression of loss and a refusal to find

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Summary: In "The Lagerstatte", Barron examines a widow (and newly childless mother) at the brink of grief who begins to encounter ghosts of her past after entering into deep fugue states. As she talks through the loss and her refusal to seek a mere replacement for what was, we also get to see a supernatural element of sorts creeping into her life. A ghost-ridden soul cracking open her own Lagersttate.

BLOT: (25 Jan 2011 - 03:29:17 PM)

Laird Barron's "The Lagerstatte", an expression of loss and a refusal to find

Early on in Laird Barron's "The Lagerstätte"—the fourth story from his 2010 collection, Occultation—we witness the opening salvo, a personal tragedy when Danni's husband flies off with their son in a newly purchased plane and never returns. A crash that took both their lives and should have Danni's as well, except she has opted to skip the flight and meet up with them later. Being a Laird Barron story, this moment is exposed to us not directly, but indirectly as a warping of time and perception, a short and powerful paragraph following the simple frustration and joy of a wife/mother with the two men of her life going off into the sky:

How many times did the plane crash between waking and sleeping? There was no way to measure that; during the first weeks the accident cycled through a continuous playback loop, cheap and grainy and soundless like a closed circuit security feed. They'd recovered pieces of fuselage from the water, bobbing like cork—she caught a few moments of news footage before someone, probably Dad, killed the television.

Likewise, we get mere glimpses of the next moments, impressions: "Men in black hats clasping cocktails to the breasts of their black suits, and severe women gathered near the sharper, astral glow of the kitchen, faces gaunt and cold as porcelain..." gives way to "Later, in the hospital, she chuckled when she read the police report. It claimed she'd eaten a bottle of pills she'd found in her mother-in-law's dresser and curled up to die in her husband's closet...the notion was just too goddamned melodramatic for words." Danni was a successful woman in a successful family, but now the line between who she was and who she will be is broken. A fresh start under horrible circumstances, with all that was once good and happy suddently buried.

Here the story shifts out to California, to the new Danni. Who smokes and drinks heavily and plays with drugs. She is part of a group of broken women: misplaced lovers and suicide attempts. Widows. Substance abusers. Her ultimate fear is being unfaithful to the past, which is the core tragedy of the story since the past ultimately plays out in the death of her husband and son. She cannot move on because moving on will betray them, but without moving on she is trapped in the mire. Even minor transgressions haunt her. She is more willing to destroy herself than to risk destroying that which has is already gone, lost in the solid and unmutable shale.

--Well, it's settled. I'm a faithless bitch. And I'm being haunted as just deserts...went home with this guy a few weeks ago. Nice guy, a graphic designer. I was pretty drunk and he was pretty persuasive.
--Nothing happened, she said. --It was very innocent, actually...But that was a lie by omission, was it not? What would the good doctor think of her if she confessed her impulses to grasp a man, any man, as a point of fact...? Her cheeks stung and she exhaled fiercely to conceal her shame.
--We had some drinks and called it a night. I still felt bad, dirty, somehow. Riding the bus home, I saw Virgil. It wasn't him...but for a second, my heart froze.

These are the nature of Danni's hauntings. Her husband and son showing up, especially in her weakest moments. She has these fugue states where she sees people not as they are, but as they are to her: faceless, reptilian voids. Sometimes she sees her husband's face on other men, in the way they walk or smell. Voices crying out, even (it seems) not voices of children, make her think that she is hearing her son cry out to her. She thinks she has summoned them forth by a ritual of cutting. A bone shard, implied to be human, cut into the hand and drawing blood. "Norma said: Grief is blood, Danni. Blood is the living path to everywhere. Blood opens the way. She said if I offered myself to the Lagerstätte, Virgil would come to me and take me into the house of dreams. But I wanted to know whether it would really be him and imitation. She said, Does it matter?"

The Lagerstätte referred to are those "storing places" where fossils build up in great numbers, like tar pits are particularly fruitful sections of shale. In the story, Danni refers to them as "resting places". Which is a theme of the story, the broken returning to their fossils instead of toward their future. Being lost, destroyed, transmuted by what they loss. Discussing another widow's disappearance, Danni describes the strange and horrible rumor surrounding it:

There was blood or something on her sheets. They say it dried in the shape of a person curled in the fetal position. They compared it to the flash shadows of victims in Hiroshima. This was deeper, as if the body had been pressed hard into the mattress. The only remains were her watch, her diaphragm, her fillings, for Christ's sake, stuck to the coagulate that got left behind like afterbirth.

A birth in reverse, a human returning to the womb of her past life, leaving behind only those new things she has picked up, her artifices. And the dent on the bed, where the pressure of daily living has pressed her out of existence, back into a fetal formation and leaving behind only afterbirth in her passing.

Thus comes the power of this story. We meet Danni in her Divine Comedy in reverse. She started out in the heaven of a past life, passed through torturing in the redefining of herself into a reverse redemption, and is now in the Inferno of guilt and denial. We know that she once again has the chance to reverse the flow, to redefine herself, but she is reduced to cutting open old wounds with a bone so that she can interact with the ghosts of her past. Ghosts which never materialize, but only are suggested in the passing of all the living around her, people she no longer can understand.

By her haphazard count, she glimpsed in excess of fifty incarnations of Virgil. Several at the tavern, solitary men mostly submerged in the recessed booths, observing her with stony diffidence through beer steins and shot glasses; a dozen more scattered along the boulevard, listless nomads whose eyes slid around, not quite touching anything. When a city bus grumbled past, every passenger's head swiveled in unison beneath the repeating flare of dome lights. Every face pressed against the dirty windows belonged to him. Their lifelike masks bulged and contorted with inconsolable longing.

A solid shadow detached from the gloom of the landing; a slight, pitchy silhouette that wavered at the edges like gasoline fumes...Mommy? A small voice echoed, familiar and strange, the voice of a child or a castrato and it plucked at her insides, sent tremors through her...the figure became two, then four and a pack of childlike shapes assembled on the landing. The pallid corona of the brown bulb dimmed. She rolled away, onto her belly, and began to crawl...

After one last descent into insanity, the reader is left alone with the contemplation of Danni's fate. The story has moved back and forth between three times. The central time is a visit to her therapist, one in which she opens up and talks of the third time, which was prior to that when she first cut herself and first saw the ghosts of her past. The second time, which is the present of the story, describes the build up to her final series of breakdowns, and possibly her last days. But then the story ends in the past, appropriately, months prior to this, and her future is an unsure as ever though most readers will likely have a strong idea of what they think happened.

Barron does not even write about the journey, per se, but merely the state. He has revisioned the quest story as a single place in which other places, past and future, arc out from like ravines. This is Danni's quest, and it all comes down to any point in time in her life. Just like Virgil's buying that plane at a moment's notice, the plane that ended up with him dead, Danni can also claim her life in either direction by either ending it or by letting the past recede back to the past so she can have a future. We see neither of those, we just see her there in the middle, choked by her fossils. In her Lagerstätte.

Readers will probably note a similarity to "The Yellow Wallpaper" (where the repressed state is not of the protagonist's choosing) and the movie Repulsion, which also bundles together guilt and sexuality into the same coin. There are even echoes of Kate Chopin's The Awakening where a woman's self-removal from her husband and child leads to a suicidal fugue, a loss of self literal and figurative, and in both cases accumulates to a fractured and somewhat unsure ending where death and rebirth are transposed into the same moment, both a loss of what-was.

While this story isn't free to peruse, you can read Barron's short story "Occultation" for free. It's a different beast, but has similar elements of being stuck at a moment between one life and the other, and the haunting of possibilities in a universe that is not so much misunderstood, but not understandable.

LABEL(s): Short Stories


Written by Doug Bolden

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