Exploring the art of prose


Author: Matthew Lansburgh

Author’s Note

“The Lure” is about an errand gone awry. It’s also about boundaries and transgression: Stewart is home for the holidays, visiting his domineering mother; Heike cajoles him into going with her to pick up some dishes from Linda Montgomery’s apartment; in the process, Heike walks Linda’s dog, Banjo, who escapes and is sprayed by a skunk. The rising tension in the story stems largely from Heike’s increasing disregard for the boundaries of people around her (opening her son’s door while he’s still asleep; forcing him to run errands with her; going into Linda’s apartment without her permission; taking Banjo on a walk, despite Linda’s prohibition; letting the dog off the leash, despite Stewart’s protestations; using guilt to hold her son hostage throughout these shenanigans.)

As the events unfold, Stewart spends more and more time in his head, thinking about his various sexual exploits, especially a recent hookup with a hot Yugoslavian whom he met at The Lure. These memories, which serve as a counterpoint to the primary story about Heike and Banjo, are meant to deepen the reader’s understanding of, and connection to, the primary drama. MFA students often learn to refer to these two kinds of complementary narratives as the “A Story” and the “B Story.” When I was a student at NYU, Darin Strauss depicted the A Story as an arc moving from low-to-high-to-low and the B Story as an arc moving the opposite direction.

In “The Lure,” how does the B Story—the story about the Yugoslavian—function from a craft perspective? Some of the elements in the B Story echo elements in the A Story: in both cases, Stewart is being acted upon by forces beyond his control; like Heike, the Yugoslavian doesn’t seem to care what Stewart wants. In both stories, the perpetrator is cast in erotic light: the Yugoslavian is hot (washboard abs + other gay catnip); Heike, by contrast, is . . . well, she’s Stewart’s mother; she’s an elderly woman who dresses as if she were still in her prime; Stewart wants to keep his distance from her, but she tells him about the intimate details of her life, and she hugs him when she’s wearing just a thin nightgown, and when she’s picking up Banjo’s shit, Stewart glimpses her stray pubic hairs. In this respect, Heike is the opposite of the Yugoslavian: Stewart is repulsed by the former and attracted to the latter, attracted enough to let the guy with muscles on his stomach and calluses on his palms do whatever he wants—no questions asked—even if might put Stewart’s life at risk.

In the B Story, Stewart doesn’t mind being told what to do; indeed, he relishes it. The juxtaposition of the two storylines is meant to encourage the reader to think about the complicated nature of boundaries and transgression and desire. Did it work?

MATTHEW LANSBURGH’s collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, won the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer TrainEcotoneElectric LiteratureStoryQuarterlyColumbia Journal (2014 Fiction Contest Winner), GuernicaMichigan Quarterly ReviewThe Florida Review (2015 Editors’ Award), Joyland, and SLICE. In 2015, Matthew attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Tennessee Williams Scholar, and he holds an MFA in Fiction from NYU, where he received a Veterans Writing Fellowship. Outside Is the Ocean has received praise from Andre Dubus III (“mesmerizing”), Kirkus (“arresting and pointed”), Booklist (“captivating”), Paul Yoon (“an exceptional debut”), and The Portland Press Herald (a “graceful and empathetic chronicle of fractured family life.”)