By Samuel Dion-Dundas
The Fugue paints a picture with two brushes. One brush is thick and powerful, yet its strokes are rather transparent. The latter is thin and discreet, and yet it is these thin strokes that create shapes within this picture. These thin lines create contrast, and through painting this metaphorical picture, comprise The Fugue’s meaning. These thin lines, Bontemps’ primary vehicle for the story’s meaning, are the beginning and end moments of Wild Turkey’s memory lapses, as well as his reflections upon them. Though on the surface, these lines are merely glimpses into the protagonist’s thoughts, they in reality mean much more: these lines are the lines of reality for Wild Turkey. This technique differentiates Bontemps’ story from most other pieces of literature, and is definitely this piece’s greatest asset.
Through Bontemps’ contrasting touches, a new picture emerges, appearing entirely different from the larger, more obvious themes. Bontemps’ use of a non-linear, piece by piece story structure highlights the protagonist’s reality: he grasps very little of it. Very little of Wild Turkey’s world feels real; he cannot grasp reality around him. Void of a personal identity and sense of belonging in the world, he feels alive only in select moments: moments in which one’s personal identity is put aside, and one can exist for the moment in and of itself. These moments are those in which he “wakes” into, a term he uses for his flashbacks. These brief instances comprise his reality, his memory, and his sense of identity. For Wild Turkey, these moments are intense, deeply physical ones. These moments, evolving throughout his life, share a common quest: to find, and sense reality. The evolution of these instances, from the pre-pubescent boy’s adventure of sexual discovery, to the adolescent boy’s adventure of sexual becoming, to the young man’s adventure of war; the young veteran’s sad, yet common adventure of identity-numbing drugs, or the eventually all-powerful identity-numbing prospect of suicide, all form a journey that one can analyze through Bontemps’ piece. This Journey, like most, began with a childhood.
As Wild Turkey walks to his old schoolhouse, repurposed and renovated years prior, he experiences one of his “gyres in time” (Bontemps, 101). As he thinks of his second grade teacher’s vaginal musk, as it would waft out of her rolls of fat on a hot day, he wonders to himself, “And why this smell now, or rather, then, upon waking-why does it chase him?” (Bontemps, 102). This moment, odd and rather unpleasant as it seems, is his flashback of his childhood past, a memory engraved in his mind, timeless if it weren’t for the fact that he was 8 when it happened. His mind wanders deeper and deeper into the memory, though the scent and “sensate allusions are always whiffs or pale imitations of the original,” (Bontemps, 102). He remembers, rather, the feeling within him that the sensation evoked; the scent meant infinitely more to him than a scent ever could. It represented something much broader, a foreshadow into what a large part of his future life would mean to him, though he didn’t yet understand what this scent meant. “It was a kind of surrender, a voiding of the mind; a reversion to some pre-infantile state of abandon. He’s been finding the declensions of that experience in his life ever since, often as he falls asleep, or which he wakes into” (Bontemps, 102). This moment represented to him a mystery, but one which he felt naturally compelled towards, as he in fact was. Though he was not old enough to recognize it, he lacked purpose as an individual; he had no parents, no guardians, and no service to a higher purpose like his brother had. He, in his lack of identity, found the thing within him that felt the most concrete, evident, and pure: his curiosity and eventual lust for the female body. Though this thirst for sex can be quenched, one’s search for purpose can rarely be satisfied, and therefore Wild Turkey will forever continue searching for this state of abandon, for moments in which he can forget the past and the future, and simply feel purpose within the moment. It was in this sense of purpose, this biological drive, that he began perceiving reality.
As Wild Turkey grew older, the world around him became bleaker, not because it was necessarily worse, but rather because he understood it more. As the thrill of sex wore off, Wild Turkey sought a new experience; something that could give him this same feeling again, and perhaps finally feel real around him. However, one can only hypothesize as to what exactly drove Wild Turkey to enlist in the military, for he himself does not remember it; the moments between his teenage sexual experiences and his military life are a blur. They did not feel real, and therefore passed by as if they hadn’t existed at all, much like how “In the afternoons he gets in the shower, wastes no minutes, gets out to find it’s two hours later.” (Bontemps, 103). For Wild Turkey, life outside of intense, impossible to ignore moments does not exist in time, but rather in vague notions; muddy details that seem to collide together, as if there is nothing to distinguish one from another: “It will never be clear to him whether he is waking from a lacunal fit, the medicine, or a memory, as if all three are essentially the same thing.” (Bontemps, 103). Wild Turkey’s memory, therefore, is a collection of moments in which he feels awake, and the world around him feels real. He can “wak[e] in mid-fuck with Jeannie” (Bontemps, 120), a moment in which he feels real, but he cannot even remember or register basic events afterwards; “Her presence now in the bathroom seems contiguous to her presence there last night, which makes it hard for Wild Turkey to tell how much time has passed, if any has passed at all.” (Bontemps, 105). This in effect creates a blur; life for Wild Turkey being merely a collection of select moments. Given this, one can easily understand why he would enlist in the military, and regardless of the danger to his life, “[not] want to go back home.” (Bontemps, 119). If an individual’s quest for identity and belonging can lead one to do unspeakable things, one can only begin to imagine the lengths to which an individual will go to make the world around him feel real.
The climax of Wild Turkey’s journey comes, without a doubt, with his military service. As he trains for his mission, he is confronted with a situation which parallels his life’s dilemma: the simulated Iraqi village. Though this village is evidently fake, it is created to seem as real as possible. Though this experience confuses him, it allows him to juxtapose reality and simulation. Through this experience, he allows himself to wonder “if anything could be more or less real than anything else, as if all reality isn’t contained in every instance of it” (Bontemps, 110). This, while being the lead-up to the situation in which he believes he will finally find the feeling of reality, also serves as a means to this end in and of itself, as it allows him to see what a simulated world feels like. In the Iraqi villagers, which he closely studies, he sees himself. He sees individuals in a fake, simulated world, and wonders as to “if they’ll show real fear” (Bontemps, 112) when his team busts down the door to capture them. He questions if the actors will “revert to their natural human reaction, to terror.” (Bontemps, 112). In questioning this, he wonders if these individuals share his feelings, or are oblivious to them; he wonders if like all the people around him, they truly believe in a fake world around them. This internal questioning, which he admits that “He’s had a lot of time to think about” (Bontemps, 111), leads to him his final, most fear-inducing concern: “He wonders when they are actually there, if it will finally seem real.” (Bontemps, 111) . This prelude to his journey’s climax worries him, but it also entices him further towards it. From this moment on, he understands that life may never feel real, and that he may never find the answer to his problems.
The climax, however, fails; this story is Wild Turkey’s Journey to find reality. As he enters the house in Ramadi, his mind catches a scent, as he “feel[s] himself falling for just a second into that complex of faintly vaginal , excretory musk” (Bontemps, 119). In this moment, Wild Turkey realizes that this familiar scent confirms his fear: he will never truly feel reality around him. This scent, distracting him as it had so many times before at home, converges his past, present and future. This light stroke of a brush is the contrasting mark to the journey’s end, as even in such a far-removed place and circumstance, he notices the same thing: reality is no different. Though he has not yet fully accepted this, “The shit, meaning the desert, the war, Iraq, becomes The Suck becomes The Fuck becomes The Fug becomes The Fugue, finally meaning just everything.” (Bontemps, 107). This last contrasting marks closes the bounds of his fugue, encircling him in it. He will always live in it, no matter where he goes or what he does.
This story’s conclusion is another showcase of Bontemps’ practice of showing things instead of telling them; there is very little conclusion. Wild Turkey gets home, returns to existing through sexual encounters, and dives into drugs. This story, like Wild Turkey’s, ends with his experiences in Iraq; he realises that there is nothing he can do to make the world around him feel real. This showcases this piece’s primary strength: making the reader feel the story, instead of merely reading it. The light touches of the contrasting brush in Wild Turkey’s world create reality around him as they do for the piece of writing itself, as this piece of writing is nothing without them. Granted, this piece of writing would definitely exist without these light touches. It would still be a story, perhaps a decent one. It would not, however, exist in the way that it exists in its current form: as an excellent, distinct piece of work. Bontemps’ masterpiece would rather be perceived like the world around Wild Turkey outside of his moments of existence; easily forgettable, one moment indistinguishable from the other.
Bontemps-Hemenway, Arna. “The Fugue.” in The Best American Short Stories 2015, ed. T.C. Boyle,100-120. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015. Print.