Charles D’Ambrosio’s The Dead Fish Museum

Prior to reading The Dead Fish Museum, Charles D’Ambrosio was to me only a name, vaguely familiar but with the unreality of rumour. I had read nothing he had written, nor seen him recommended by the writers and critics I’m familiar with. And yet his accolades abound: a Whiting Award, a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, and a Rasmusson Fellowship. This particular short story collection, culled largely from his writings for The New Yorker, won the 2007 Washington State Book Award for Fiction. He is even an accomplished essayist: his first collection of essays, Orphans (2005), became a cult classic, despite having only a single print run, and the paperback now fetches north of $150 on Amazon. It gives me great pleasure to affirm these judgments: D’Ambrosio writes on dark and difficult subject matter with courage and honesty, and if his characters are often broken or burdened psychologically or spiritually, he nevertheless finds in them an essential dignity to affirm their humanity and compel our sympathy.

Consider a sampling of plots: two former heroin addicts, newly escaped from rehab, drive across the country attempting to scam various families into buying a phoney magazine subscription for a charity that – what else – nurtures the infant children of drug addicts back to health; a successful Hollywood screenwriter, disgusted by the superficiality of his profession and his own success, checks himself into a mental institution, where he meets men and women even more broken than him; a husband and wife, newly wed, take a trip to the wife’s family cabin, where the husband will meet his wife’s parents for the first time since their marriage – as well as the man who once raped his wife; a down-on-his luck man, who travels with a loaded gun (in case he finally works up the courage to shoot himself), returns to California to shoot a porn film, where he encounters industry veterans, lost souls one and all. Not, on the whole, a cheery or affirming sampling of stories, and yet D’Ambrosio’s mosaic of American misery never feels tawdry or cynical. Lesser writers often fall into the trap of revelling in their characters’ misfortunes, mistakenly thinking that representing the darkness automatically confers emotional depth or philosophical weight to a story. But it isn’t the abyss that confers meaning, but our various human revolts against it, and D’Ambrosio’s characters are distinguished by the resistance they put up, however minor. In “Up North,” we meet a dutiful husband and accountant, whose wife – long ago raped by a friend of her father – cannot be faithful to him, making her both victim and victimizer. Her husband’s summary of their situation is heartbreaking in its honesty, and what it says about his capacity (or perhaps his desire?) for self-erasure:

This is not easy to say, so I’ll start with the clinical by saying that Carlone was anorgasmic: she’d never had a climax, not with me or anyone else, not even by herself. Like many other men before me, I believed that I would remedy that problem, that it was merely a matter of prowess and patience, of a deeper love and a greater persistence, but no matter what we did – the books, the scents, the oils, all the hoodoo of love – none of it changed a thing. With time, my conceit broke down. In defeat I came to feel weak and ashamed. In some way, her lack of sexual fulfillment accounted for her promiscuity: what she missed in intensity she made up for in scope. She had never been a faithful lover, either before or after our marriage; she preferred sex with strangers, which I could never be, not again. It was as if she were determined to revisit, over and over, that original moment of absolute strangeness. And yet she continued to need the scrim of familiarity I offered, so that the world would fill more sharply with the unfamiliar. Daily I lost more and more of my status as a stranger, and our marriage was like a constant halving of the distance, without ever arriving at the moment in time where, utterly familiar, I’d vanish.

I find this passage equal parts depressing and accurate. Human beings, when delivering personal or painful news, always prefer to begin with “the clinical,” with the defined and commonly known, and this husband’s reaction to his wife’s “anorgasmic” condition is utterly understandable. But what of her infidelity? It’s hardly unheard of for sexual trauma to impact on a person’s sexual preferences, but her persistent infidelity says something ugly about her relationship to her husband, as his placid acceptance of it says something ugly about him.

Humour is the oldest of human reactions to pain and suffering, and unsurprisingly, D’Ambrosio’s characters are quick to offer one-liners and witty rejoinders. Surveying his film set being constructed before his eyes, the budding pornographer Greenfield boasts that “This is the back road to Hollywood.” But whatever superficial similarities shooting a Hollywood movie and a pornographic film might have, there is precious little overlap in the talent pool, and Greenfield soon acknowledges this:

“Who am I kidding?” Greenfield said. “This doesn’t go anywhere near Hollywood.”
“You’ve got lots of company,” Ramage said.
“Everybody wants a little stardust to fall on them.”
“Success could be all over your face next week,” Ramage said.

If that joke is lost on you, consider yourself lucky. At another moment, Ramage will ask about the plot of their movie. “Boy meets girl,” comes the reply. Funny, right? Except that the plot of this short story, in no small part, is “boy meets girl.” The female talent, who “looked like a rough outline for someone’s idea of a woman, the main points greatly exaggerated,” strikes up a genuine relationship with Ramage, the luckless man who travels with a loaded gun. Everyone on the set who sees them together assumes that the relationship is sexual, but their connection is more genuine than that, and, however, brief, transforms Ramage for the better. The title of this story is also the title of the entire collection, “The Dead Fish Museum.” The phrase comes from the wife of an illegal immigrant working on the set. After work, he catches fish for them to eat, thereby pocketing his per diem, and his wife’s phrase for the refrigerator, where they store these chilled meals, is the “dead fish museum.”

The implication – hardly subtle – of naming the entire collection after this image is that there is some similarity between the men and women of these stories and those frozen fish. D’Ambrosio’s characters live half lives, blighted by trauma or loss, deprived of the essential human dignities, and he has put them on display for us, though not to gawk at them and still less to condescend to them; rather, he wants us to admire them. And to this end, he is remarkably successful.