-objects used to reflect characters’ (divergent) perspectives
-deploying scene v. exposition
In Joy Williams’ “Congress,” the main character, Miriam, lives with a forensic anthropologist, Jack, who’s revered for being able to confirm people’s loved ones are dead and provide closure. One day one of his enamored students, Carl, gives him a lamp made out of deer feet that Miriam is repulsed by the thought of, but turns out to be enthralled by in person, to the point of attributing it human emotions. Then Jack is severely brain-damaged in a hunting accident with Carl, who dotes on and takes care of him to the point of replacing Miriam. Carl, Jack, Miriam and the lamp take a trip together, breaking down in a town with a renowned taxidermy museum. After drinking with tourists excited by the museum, Miriam visits it herself, and the taxidermist, recognizing her as spirited after she slaps someone who gets mad at her for pointing out the animals are dead, asks her to replace him; all the stuffing has been done so she’d only have to answer questions, which she can make up the answers to. She agrees, and when she returns to the hotel finds that Jack and Carl have gone, but the lamp is still there.
The chronic tension here is Miriam’s unrest in her relationship and living situation with Jack. The acute tension would seem to be Jack’s accident, though with the way Williams compresses scene and exposition, his accident could be considered the chronic tension, with the road trip serving as acute tension. By choosing to take the taxidermist’s place, Miriam is finally moving on from her stagnant position at Jack’s side, which she’s already been displaced from.
What constitutes Jack’s accident as the chronic tension (even though it happens after the story starts) and the road trip as the acute is the way Williams deploys scene and exposition. The only “scenes” we get before they start the road trip span no more than a couple of lines, if that:
He continued to speak calmly and patiently; he never got mad, he persisted.
“Miriam,” Jack said, “that is not meant to be a reading light. It’s an accent light. You’re going to ruin your eyes.”
The first sentence of the passage is describing a continuous span of time (exposition) while the second, a line of dialogue, momentarily locates it in a specific time and place (scene). The next sentence will slip into exposition again. A less capable writer might have started the story on the road trip and then packed the exposition about Jack’s accident and what led up to it into scenes in the course of that, but Williams can give us practically five straight pages of exposition before the story’s main event without having it drag via the specificity of her details that enable her to pack the briefest of scenes into the exposition:
“My son Ricky disappeared four years ago and some skeletal remains were found at the beginning of this year. Scattered, broken, lots of bones missing, not much to go on, a real jumble. The officials told me they probably weren’t Ricky’s but your Jack told me they were, and with compassion he showed me how he reached that conclusion.” The woman waited. In her cart was a big bag of birdseed and a bottle of vodka. “If it weren’t for Jack, my Ricky’s body would probably be unnamed still,” she said.
“Well, thank you very much,” Miriam said.
The bag of birdseed and bottle of vodka transport us into the scene, enable us to experience it, despite how short it is.
Notably, the exception to this pattern in the story’s first part, the predominantly expositional one that constitutes the chronic tension, is the conversation they have about whether or not to get the lamp. Whether we consciously notice this is a longer scene than we’ve gotten or not, we will register the lamp as important because of it.
One of the most unique aspects of this story is that we have a character in love with an inanimate object. Miriam’s love for the inanimate lamp is a symbol for her being in love with death. Death litters this literary landscape from the first sentence, entering the story via Jack’s forensic anthropology and then through the inanimate lamp. Jack initially represents closure for the living dead, then embodies a type of living death. Then there’s the road trip section, where dead animals are the predominant feature of the scenery:
…the landscape had changed considerably. There was a great deal of broken glass and huge cactus everywhere. Organ-pipe, saguaro, barrel cactus and prickly pear. Strange and stern shapes, far stiller than trees, less friendly and willing to serve. They seemed to be waiting for further transition, another awesome shift of the earth’s plates, an enormous occurrence. The sun bathed each spine, it sharpened the smashed bottles and threw itself through the large delicate ears of car-crushed jackrabbits. They saw few people and no animals except dead ones. The land was vast and still and there seemed to be considerable resentment toward the nonhuman creatures who struggled to inhabit it. Dead coyotes and hawks were nailed to fence posts and the road was hammered with the remains of lizards and snakes. Miriam was glad that the lamp was covered and did not have to suffer these sights.
Of course, Miriam is the one “waiting for further transition,” which the stop at the dead-animal museum will provide. The tourists in the town are, in contrast to these dead animals, “wildly stimulated,” seemingly because of the dead animals they’ve seen. It’s Miriam’s pointing out that the animals are dead that leads her to slap the man that leads the taxidermist to make his offer to her to replace him.
Much like how the husband’s and wife’s divergent opinions on the utility of the presidential hologram in Adam Johnson’s “Nirvana” reflect their divergent opinions on grief and coping with crises in general, in “Congress,” Jack/Carl’s and Miriam’s divergent opinions on objects reflect their divergent outlooks on life.
There’s the lamp:
“Gosh, this appeals to me, though, Miriam.”
“You should resist the urge to do this, Jack, really,” Miriam said. The thought of a lamp made of animal legs in her life and turned on caused a violent feeling of panic within her.
Then there’s the taxidermy museum:
“I’ve heard about that,” Carl said. “And I would say that a museum like that, and the people who run it—well, it’s deeply into denial on every level. That’s what I’d say. And Jack here, all his life he was the great verifier—weren’t you, Jack? And still are, by golly.” Jack cleared his throat and Carl gazed at him happily. “We don’t want to go into a place like that,” Carl said.
Miriam felt ashamed and determined. “I’ll go over there for just an hour or two,” she said.
The dead animals, are, of course, a symbol for Miriam herself, as becomes most obvious, perhaps, in this passage from near the end:
Behind him was a large nonhuman shape on which progress appeared to have slowed. It looked as though it had been in this stage of the process for a long time.
The taxidermist then proceeds to pontificate about attitudes toward death, then describes how he’s different from another taxidermist who makes the animals look dead, because he makes them look alive. The taxidermist helps her acknowledge to herself that she’s in love with a lamp:
“I’ll think about it,” Miriam said. But actually she was thinking about the lamp. The odd thing was she had never been in love with an animal. She had just skipped that cross-species eroticism and gone right beyond it to altered parts. There was something wrong with that, she thought. It was so hopeless. Well, love was hopeless…
Amidst all the imagery of dead animals, the final image we’re offered of them is of them alive:
A thin maid in a pink uniform was changing the channel on a television set. Something was being described by the announcer as a plume of effluent surrounded by seagulls…
The image of a live animal stands out here at the end after so many dead animals, whether the reader consciously registers it or not. The seagulls congregating around waste, animals that aren’t dead, but responding to human problems, symbolizes Miriam’s return from the dead, emphasizing the irony that this return from death was only possible via a fixation on death and human waste. In her new role as the answerer of people’s questions, Miriam is, in essence, a seagull hovering around effluent. It’s also relevant that this image of life is mediated through a screen, not experienced directly, which seems to inform Miriam’s conclusion that nothing really happens anywhere.
The taxidermist says what Miriam should realize is that she can answer people’s questions any way she wants. This is effectively what Jack does at the beginning of the story when he’s declaring people’s loved ones dead. The conclusion with Miriam colors our perspective of what Jack was actually doing here–it’s emphasized how happy people are with the information he can give them, but the taxidermists remark about answering people’s questions however you want seems to imply that this might have been what Jack was doing all along–simply giving people the answers they wanted to hear, and thriving off the energy they provided him in their gratitude. What Jack is to his clients at the beginning is what the taxidermist is to his clients–providing necessary, but potentially made up, answers. So by taking over the taxidermist’s role, Miriam has become who Jack used to be. Balance is restored, and even if we don’t consciously register how Miriam has now taken up Jack’s role, the ending provides a sense of closure. Miriam finally confronts her love of the inanimate lamp with the taxidermist because his talking about how the answers can be anything might have led her to realize Jack was not her answer; realizing Jack was making up his answers might have helped her figure this out.
This would not be the same story, or a finished one, if Miriam had simply gone to the museum and not had her exchange with the taxidermist, then returned to find Jack and Carl gone. This would be an action that happened to her, and as such it is not enough to complete her arc.