"The Baum Plan for Financial Independence" by John Kessel: An Appreciation by Mike Bailey and Chris Dodson
By Chris Dodson on Wednesday, March 24, 2004 - 02:42 pm:
In regard to John Kessel's "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence" . . .
First of all, I'd like to say that line by line, this was one of the most well-written SCIFICTION stories I've ever read. Some of the sentences and turns of phrase here are classic--
"calm as a Christian holding four aces"
"The softness of Dot's breast or the shit smell of the crapper in the Highway 28 Texaco, how can there be anything more real than that?"
"I had some time to contemplate the ways in which I was a fool, number one being the way I let an ex lap-dancer from Mebane lead me around by my imagination for the last ten years."
These lines have a folksy Southern charm that is quite endearing.
Being a Southerner myself, I've always enjoyed SF/F in the literary tradition of the American South--this has always been a specialty of Kessel, Michael Bishop, Andy Duncan, Dale Bailey, and others. Along with the references to T-Birds, Texaco, Willie Nelson, gravel roads, and broken down houses with "a battered pickup in the dirt driveway and a rust spotted propane tank outside in the yard," there's a certain wistfulness and nostalgia inherent in this story that places it firmly in the Southern tradition. There's a pervasive sense here that Things Were Better Once--before Sid's old man went bust, before he and Dot turned to a life of crime. Everything in Sid and Dot's world seems to be fucked up and broken down, a sharp contrast to the later Emerald City scenes (which I'll get to in a minute).
Sid is an interesting, extremely conflicted character. He seems to have a desperate need for control (as evinced by 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 a match even though he has them), and yet he falls in line with everything Dot says and does, rather like a lapdog. Is Sid meant to be the Toto to Dot's Dorothy?
I wonder if all the Emerald City stuff is supposed to be going on only in Sid's mind. Early in the story, Sid says: "Radioactive Roy and the people like him are just looking for an exit door. I can understand that. Everybody dreams of an exit door sometimes." Is the last part of the story supposed to be Sid's dream of an exit door, a way out of his pathetic life?
The most important parts of the story are the references to and resonances with THE WIZARD OF OZ. The main references I found are as follows:
1. The title, of course, is a reference to L. Frank Baum, writer of THE WIZARD OF OZ.
2. Dot's full name is Dorothy Gale, and she's wearing red sneakers.
3. The city that Dot and Sid end up in is clearly meant to be Emerald City.
4. Miss Goode = Glenda the Good Witch
5. 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 original WIZARD OF OZ was an allegorical fable about the Populist party's fight for financial independence from the gold standard (more on that can be found here). The title of Kessel's story leads me to believe that this story is about a similar fight for independence, but from what? From Dot? From Sid's pathetic life? From the entropy of Sid's world? That's just one of many intriguing questions Kessel's story left floating around in my head.
This was truly a wonderful story. If "The Three Unknowns" is my favorite SF story of the year so far, then "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence" is my favorite fantasy.
Oh, and one other question: What is the significance of the name Sidney Xavier Dubose? It's such an odd name -- surely it means something.
By Mike Bailey on Thursday, March 25, 2004 - 06:52 am:
Wow, way to go Chris! … I was about to ask what the Baum reference was all about, so thanks for answering that. You picked up on some great Easter eggs that I missed.
My interpretation of the theme, or single effect of the story, is likely to be a bit controversial . . .
By Mike Bailey on Thursday, March 25, 2004 - 08:33 am:
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.
I could go on about a few of the ways Kessel creates tension in this story (I think he shows some masterful touches there), but I'll leave that as a topic for someone else . . .
By Chris Dodson on Thursday, March 25, 2004 - 12:34 pm:
Great post, Mike! Your theory about the story's condemnation of Western nations is quite intriguing. Now I have to go back and re-read it.
I'm not sure I would have picked up on those WIZARD OF OZ references if not for the fact that I watched the movie a day or two before Ellen posted the title of the story back on March 2. When I saw "Baum", THE WIZARD OF OZ was the first thing that popped into my head. That's what made me ask if it was one of his Hollywood stories.
By Ellen on Thursday, March 25, 2004 - 07:39 pm:
Mike and Chris,
Thanks for your thoughtful posts. I'm going to get John to post here (I hope ) although he's currently at the Conf with me here. Or at least I'll try to get him to lurk.
By John Kessel on Sunday, March 28, 2004 - 12:12 pm:
Thanks Chris and Mike for some of the most cogent comments I have ever had on a story I have written. I can't imagine anything more gratifying for a writer than to have two such intelligent readers sucking the marrow out of the conscious and unconscious meanings of his work.
I'll respond to a couple of things, though I don't want to say too much since I believe that, once the story is out of the writer's hands, it should speak for itself.
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.
Thanks for your sympathetic readings of my characters. I really like both Dot and Sid though I don't think they are paragons by any means. And they're a lot different from most of my characters. I had fun trying to assume Sid's voice and come up with colorful turns of phrase.
Mike identifies exactly the sentence that I intend to be the climax of the story, though I did not know Sid was going to say that until the moment he said it.
A lot of this story comes out of my unconscious--probably more than most of my stories--but I believe that writing is a matter of your conscious collaborating with your unconscious. I can be scary what lurks down there.
I just read the story at the ICFA where Ellen and I were for the last four days, and it seemed to go over very well. It was in a session where James Patrick Kelly read a new story that is also going to appear at SciFiction, and the two stories seemed to go together nicely, though we did not plan it that way. It was a treat to read to such a good audience, and it has made my month to come home to your comments.
Link to story.