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On Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The Dead Fish Museum”

November 12, 2014 by Leslie Jamison

“The Dead Fish Museum” starts with a key that doesn’t work, presented to a motel clerk whose face is visible “through a circle in the slab of glass, cut like a hole in ice.” It’s a story full of people trapped—trapped by need or trauma or loneliness, trapped inside the stifling confines of a hastily erected porn set: “They’d boarded shut the windows and now, with fumes of fresh paint filling the warehouse, Ramage felt woozy.” Ramage is the guy who runs the carpentry crew. He builds a world he doesn’t want to be inside of. He builds a world where a woman gets paid to get fucked between walls he’s painted such a glossy black he can see his own face reflected in their darkness: “his reflection floated as if submerged in dark water."

But even this vision is partial. This is a world in which one can only partially exist, in which only certain parts of a person can reside: “The wall did not reflect the crews’ eyes or mouths; black hollows bloomed in their heads like the holes in a skull.” Submerged in water, peering out from ice-holes cut in plastic, woozy from paint fumes and blooming dark hollows where they might otherwise be speaking or seeing: these are characters looking for an outside and finding only motel bathtubs that go grimy with the dirt from their days: “Outside, there was nothing but the separateness of feeling used and spent, of rundown bones and sore muscles and another day, and at the narrow end of it a tub of tepid water that would instantly turn tea-brown and drain away, leaving a ring of crud around the porcelain.”

This is stunning language—in its rhythms and its precision, its surprise (the narrow end, the rundown bones), its sensitivity to the residue of despair, that ring of crud—and it haunts me after I’ve read it, it keeps summoning characters haunted by what they’ve already survived: a mental hospital, a civil war. They have survived these things for this compromised half-life, for their partial faces visible in overwhelming darkness, for motel rooms in this off-season seaside town, with a spice factory filling the air with its daily business (basil, oregano) and litter skittering across the boardwalk, bits of popcorn and empty cotton candy cones; for the blank faces and daily shit of co-workers, for trysts that never quite happen and veins of loneliness that never become anything more than the sum of their separate parts.

Ramage drives a porn actress away from his room one night by putting on a puppet show with his gun and a bullet: “’Let’s have a baby,’ the bullet said. / ‘Fill me with your seed,’ the gun said.” These are the possibilities of sex: it’s something to sell or else it’s a way of talking about how you want to die. The only relief is the relief of getting fucked up: drunkenness like a momentary ocean leading beyond, finally beyond, to some outside—“Ramage drank with the image of blue water, of open sea, before him”—but this vista only lasts a little while, until he wakes up to the world again.

The story closes with the same motel clerk who opened it, still reading her Harlequin novel behind the plastic, “the white waste of her face set to the romance,” and this story is something else: not the hollow consolation of romance but the deeper company of waste; the refusal to turn away from our own faces submerged in darkness.

Read "The Dead Fish Museum" in APS 01. "The Dead Fish Museum" also appears in the eponymous collection published by Knopf in 2006.

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