Welcome to our fourth collaborative feature with Cincinnati’s online magazine Soapbox. This time out, we’re featuring Margaret Luongo’s “Word Problem,” from volume 9, number 2. Soapbox tells the new Cincinnati story—a narrative of creative people and businesses, new development, cool places to live, and the best places to work and play. And every other month, Cincinnati Review contributes some of the best lit—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—in the country. Here, we’ve reprinted “Word Problem” in full, as well as “bonus material” in the form of comments from the writer and our staff, including the editor who accepted the piece for publication.
Margaret M. Luongo
Ten students attend conservatory at a nationally acclaimed school of music.
Students A and B, male and female respectively, are naturally gifted singers for whom music is an uncomplicated joy. Whether or not they themselves become nationally acclaimed products of the nationally acclaimed school, they imagine that they will sing all their lives. Both feel sheepish about the amount of nerve it takes to send oneself to a nationally acclaimed institution in order to devote oneself to a discipline that all but promises some version of failure. Even people who are very good probably aren’t good enough. Frankly, they are a little embarrassed by their self-indulgence, but they have to get a degree, and it might as well be in something they love, something that doesn’t yet feel like work.
Three of the students—C, D, and E—are insecure perfectionists who are fiercely competitive. Student C has an eating disorder and wears only black t-shirts and jeans. The other students suspect that he waxes his entire body because he has no arm hair. Student D is insecure about her breasts and wears extra-extra-large sweatshirts, even when conducting, which sometimes gets in her way. No one would care anything about her breasts, but she has made such a show of her horror of them that by the end of her third year she is known as “tits.” She has a beautiful voice, which she disavows, though she will sing Happy Birthday as long as a top and a bottom are available. Student E seems nice enough, and she actually is nice, though most of her peers suspect she is not as nice as she seems. Her parents have inculcated her in a faith that promotes tolerance and loving kindness, so she mostly competes with herself. She has not played team sports, but she did march in band (tuba) so she knows what it’s like to work hard with others. She took some grief as a girl playing tuba. She is very tall.
Red-haired Student F has a vibrant personality which she uses to mask the pain of growing up with overly critical alcoholic parents. People who don’t know her well—and most don’t—think she is intense but harmless. She goes to some trouble to remain harmless, as when she attended classes for one week dressed as a transvestite. Some assumed devotion to Rocky Horror, others to whimsy or musical theater. Her friends, both of them, knew that her brother had punched the windows out of his bedroom and had just begun a long convalescence in a private hospital.
Student G possesses modest gifts but is even-tempered and hard-working. She knows she is good enough for certain things—teaching, for instance—but she also thinks she might be able to make it as a performer. She sees plenty of people waste their talent—it doesn’t move them, they are lazy, or they refuse to take an interest to spite their parents. She also knows that some people are weird or assholes, or so crazy they can’t get out of their own way. Some are full of self-loathing, and they sabotage themselves. She figures if she can hang in there, she will probably be successful. If pressed, she would admit that her dreams with regard to music-making involve steady work and steady pay.
Student H is a well adjusted genius. His parents love him and have been supportive of his musical activity from a young age. If asked, he would name having to quit baseball as his sole lingering resentment from childhood. He was twelve when he injured his hand and couldn’t practice piano. You cannot serve two masters, his father said. But H’s body loved sport: diving to make a catch, sliding home, turning a double play, waiting at second base, poised for the next moment to unfold. Sometimes during concerts, when he bows his violin, images from games appear in his mind; mostly he thinks about a catch he made when his body was completely horizontal. Nothing in his life has equaled that feeling. When he plays music with others he comes close to experiencing those moments of readiness and anticipation; something is about to happen, and he can’t predict exactly what it will be. He especially feels this when he sits in with jazz musicians, which he does as often as possible. It’s like a pick-up game, he tells his parents, though they don’t know anything about basketball, except that it’s a way for musicians to ruin their hands and embouchure.
Students I and J are smart—very smart—and they are assholes. After two semesters, each one thinks he is the smartest person in the school. They no longer believe in music as it is typically defined. They are sure most people do not even hear what is being played. They are not allies; in fact, they take no notice each other. They tend to skip class, and the music they want to make can’t be conjured in the practice rooms. I skulks around the trestle near the defunct paper mill, recording the sounds of trains coming and going in the blue hours. J writes evocative nonsense verse, which he turns in for every assignment, regardless of its relevance. His teachers assume he is having a breakdown or that he is stoned. Something is wrong with him, and it’s not their fault or problem. He arrived this way, bright and unready to learn.
Students I and J know all about John Cage. They don’t know that they are furious with him. They feel—and they are right—that they can never employ his logic in order to surpass him. They will always be recreating his experiments on his terms. They can’t articulate this, but John Cage is their father, and they would like to murder him. Each suspects, on an unconscious level, that he is not smart enough to metaphorically or intellectually slay John Cage. The alternative is to get good at something people might actually like. Thus their rage and despair.
Solve the following problems, showing your work. An answer key follows.
Twenty years after they earn their degrees, how many students make a living at making music?
How many graduates of the nationally acclaimed school of music become nationally acclaimed themselves?
How many students maintain an uncomplicated relationship to music?
How many students write jingles for television?
Which students suffer breakdowns and why?
Which students give up on music and how long will it take them (in months) to conclude that they should quit?
Which students become parents who will NOT push their children into music?
How many students will answer questions about their musical training with rueful good humor?
Which students go on to become teachers who are thoroughly bored by their students?
How many students become music directors for their parish?
Do any of the students drop out? Which ones? Why?
Which student develops an intense non-sexual relationship with an older mentor, moving into her Manhattan apartment and spending a lifetime composing on her piano and traveling to Greece with her every summer of their life together?
Which student realizes, in his late forties, that he is gay and weeps for his effaced sexuality?
Which students, if any, go into politics?
Which, if any, become Republicans? How? Why? Show your work.
Which, if any, undergo gender reassignment?
In their spare time, two students are part of a string quartet that plays only works by John Cage. One takes particular pleasure in the vocal parts. The other wonders why anyone comes to their performances. He feels that he and the audience are frauds and somehow the fact that they perpetrate this sham together makes life more bearable. Identify the students.
Which students can’t locate the source of their misery?
Which students become university employees?
III. An Answer Key
1. Six students make a living at making music, twenty years after earning their degree: G and H as full-time orchestra members; I as a college professor; E as an assistant band director; A as a church music director; and C as a composer of popular music and lyrics. The rate of relative success may seem high, but the nationally acclaimed institution takes few risks on the students to whom it grants admission.
2. Four of the ten become nationally acclaimed: I, the very smart asshole, for his organized sound projects in New Media; C, the insecure and fiercely competitive perfectionist, for his popular music and lyrics; H, the well-adjusted genius, who has become principal violinist for a major city’s orchestra; and B, the naturally gifted singer for whom music is an uncomplicated joy, for her power in local politics, which has galvanized grass-roots movements across the country.
3. None of the students have an entirely uncomplicated relationship to music, with the possible exception of the vibrant and red-headed F. She most enjoys dressing up as David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust era), and fronting a Bowie cover band. This is a fairly uncomplicated pleasure, one that allows her to negotiate the complex and unresolved feelings she has about other parts of her life. In other words, her musical activity allows her to keep living, which, owing to momentum and a certain kind of inertia, isn’t as complicated as it sounds.
4. C has written jingles for television commercials. He enjoyed the nonsense rules imposed by the marketing people about demographics and “vibe”; the work had nothing to do with him—it was simply a puzzle to solve as brilliantly as possible. One summer day during his one-year tenure as a hells-a-fire jingle writer, he wakes up in a foam of white sheets, Big Sur blue blazing through the skylight, and he’s done with commercial writing, or this type, anyway.
5. Students A and F suffer breakdowns. Everybody saw F’s breakdown coming and thought it heroic the way she put it off so long. During this brief “rest,” as she called it on the telephone with her mother—“I’m resting a few bars, Mother. I’ll jump in when it comes round again.”—she wraps herself in thrift-store sweaters and experiments with macaroni and cheese recipes, trading one cheese for another, trying different herbs, noodles, and toppings: breadcrumbs, store bought and homemade; cornflakes; panko; tempura kelp. F nurtures herself with music, too: Carole King, Mahler, Var<\#142>se, David Bowie. Mostly, she stares off into space. Her two friends check on her. What brings her out of her funk? Not the art therapy, not the individual or group counseling, but a playwright friend of her brother’s. He leaves a shy message on her answering machine: would she read a part in his new play, the part of a waif-muse with supreme empathic skills? Intrigued by the idea of being supremely anything, F gets off the couch. She knows something about feeling what others feel, having practiced a perversion of empathy with the alcoholics in her life.
The naturally gifted A loses it quietly, by himself. Anyone with eyes could have seen it coming. He has the best kind of breakdown: job quit, he drives to San Francisco, meets some nice young men, remembers who he is, and drives back East after a year’s exploration of the flesh and grins of beautiful youngsters who vibrate with music and drugs. As the sun helps the body make and store vitamin D, so does this experience help A to make and store some unidentified substance that sustains him for a while.
6. Student D gives up on music entirely, some time toward the end of her junior year—about twenty-eight months after accepting admission to the nationally acclaimed school of music. She does enough to graduate. She marries, has children, and becomes an excellent conductor of household affairs. The children understand to do things her way, that it gives their mother great pleasure to see everything just so. Her husband knows his prescribed area of performance. He dreads the time—coming soon—when the children will prefer to pursue their own pleasures, rather than their mother’s. Already the youngest intentionally loses the scarves D wraps her in before school. After the children, before middle age really sets in, D will have some work done to fix the one area of her life that still does not meet her standards.
7. H is the only graduate who will push his children into music. They are naturally gifted, he reasons, and he can teach them from an early age. By the time they reach adolescence, he’ll know whether or not they have the passion and discipline necessary to sustain a lifetime of intense focus. He will allow them to play sports, and in that way—via a foul tip, an elbow to the face, or some other mishap—the decision might be made for them. He imagines himself coaching, but he doesn’t think he can stand occupying the sidelines. Instead, he considers the old-man league, exhausting his body until it aches, appearing in the kitchen, muddy, muscles wrung to quivering. But of course, he can do no such thing; he supports his family through his job with the major city’s symphony orchestra, and he cannot risk injury. Most mornings he rises early and runs alone—through the woods near his house, on the trails slick and fragrant with rust-colored pine needles, or in the neighborhood, rustling through fallen leaves. He imagines himself diving to make a play, plowing through a defender, swinging a bat, feeling the force of contact in his bones.
8. Only C and D will make jokes about their musical training, and they will make exactly the same kind of jokes, along the lines of “Well, they tried their best to teach me, but—“ After his enormous success, C stops making these remarks. To continue would be disingenuous. D will remain a life-long yukster on the subject of her aborted musical aspirations, it being her fault and no one else’s. Every year, she writes a check to the nationally acclaimed music school’s scholarship fund. In lieu of her alumna update, she pens a smiley face on the memo line of the check.
9. At different points in their lives, eight of the ten students find themselves teachers bored by their students or by teaching. Some work through the feeling and keep teaching; others run from the task, the way healthy animals flee the carcass of a fallen member of its species.
10. One student—A—becomes Music Director for his parish. He prides himself on providing excellent music for Mass, weddings, and funerals. No other parish has such a good liturgical program; in fact, A has been wooed by Monsignors and Bishops, all of them eager to procure his talents for their own diocese. At home, he tells his partner, “The Bishop tried to pick me up again. Apparently, I am irresistible.” His partner glances up from the New York Times Review of Books. “You’re being cruised by Christ. Don’t you think that’s a little weird?” A thinks about it, sits on the arm of the sofa where his lover reads and says, “I take it where I can get it.”
11. None of the students drop out, but J flunks out after his first year. I, who had just started to notice J, feels humbled for a moment, then angry all over again, though he can’t say why. He only knows that he works harder; he doesn’t ask himself any questions, other than, “Am I working hard enough?” He attends every class, reads professional journals, practices in the practice rooms, haunts the music library when he finds himself with extra time, and keeps up with everything new, while his professors teach him centuries of music history. Many years after graduation, he considers trying to find J, then thinks better of it.
12. C, though wildly successful, is still an insecure perfectionist. He does not know what he has done to deserve the unconditional devotion of his mentor. He recalls something his mother said, while exhaling smoke from her long brown cigarette, somewhere in the neighborhood of her fourth and fifth cocktails: “The rocks in his head fit the holes in hers.” This in response to another situation in another time, but he thinks it apt now, and he doesn’t find it harsh or unkind. Rocks, holes—all that matters is the fit—and the outcome: good music, professional respect, material wealth, contentedness. His success and his enjoyment of it stems, in part, from his ability to create puzzles challenging enough for him to enjoy solving. His mentor delights in these games, and she waits to be amazed by what C produces, which spurs him on.
C still takes a dim view of eating, so she prepares meals so suited to his palate that he can’t resist them, and these in very small portions that simultaneously satisfy and create appetite. C knows his mentor has bested him in this arena. How clever of her to create something so desirable, in such limited quantities. He thinks once, watching her in the kitchen—slim, blonde, in her vintage pedal-pushers—that someone should have sex with her. Later at dinner, he clears his throat between sips of chardonnay and suggests as much. A tiny forkful of risotto enters her mouth; she chews, swallows, sips from her wine glass. “It’s not that I’m short-circuited,” she says, and he notices how tiny she is, how little of her there actually is. “This,” she says, waving her fork in a tiny circle at herself, “is a conservation project.” The sun blazes in, hot on C’s cheek, and he has never felt so warm and content.
13. For many years, A feigned indifference to sex so that he could avoid sleeping with men. Through the kindness and patience of an extremely attractive man, who also happens to possess a lovely tenor, A has finally found himself in a steady intimate relationship. “We’ll make up for lost time,” his partner tells him, when A bemoans all the youthful sex he missed. “You probably wouldn’t have liked it anyway,” his friend tells him, stroking his forearm.
14. B realizes that though she is naturally gifted, she is unwilling to work as hard as she would need to in order to become exceptional, if that is even possible, and she suspects it is not. She is willing to work hard enough to teach at the primary or secondary level, but a brief stint as a junior counselor at a music camp leads her to the conclusion that this, to her, would be torture. Meanwhile, back home, her neighbors lose their jobs, their homes. At her parents’ kitchen table, she hears about the teen-agers’ wages her neighbors earn at factory jobs in the new economy—people raising families, making less money than she did scooping ice cream summer vacations. Loading up on history and political science, she finishes her degree and canvasses for local politicians, working into the early morning hours at campaign headquarters, knocking on doors all weekend, rallying support. In the night, she wakes to find her fingers moving across the phantom neck of her guitar. Years later, while working late at the state house or drafting policy on a commuter flight, she’ll regard the slimness of her fingers and remember their pressure on the strings; the smell of sandalwood comes back to her. She pushes herself harder, hallucinating from fatigue on boring stretches of road between campaign stops; bars of music and teleprompter text float amid the telephone wires and billboards. She hums what she thinks she sees before her and digs in her purse for something to keep her awake.
15. D marries a Republican and votes Republican, though she maintains her registration as a Democrat. Her husband does not know she votes Republican; he assumes she is a bleeding heart liberal, and that is one of the things he loves about her.
16. None of the students undergo gender reassignment, though F considers herself a cross-dresser. She lives in a college town on the side of a mountain in Tennessee, where people are gracious and appreciative of her gifts. They don’t mind her turbulent bouts of inflamed fashion. They know to be extra kind, gentle, and appreciative as her hair color changes, heels rise and fall, sequins come and go. The extra kindness manifests itself in no outward change in their behavior toward her.
17. G, the modestly gifted student who is even-tempered and hardworking, neither lazy nor spiteful, weird nor crazy, plays cello in a quartet specializing in the works of John Cage. H, the well-adjusted genius, plays violin. Both are also members of a major city’s orchestra. H is, as principal violinist, the boss of G. G approves; so does H. G feels perfectly secure, which is why H is attracted to her. She is not intimidated by his talent, so he pursues her. H enjoys the look of impish delight on G’s face during their performances of the experimental work. H has no idea what the other musicians will do, and that keeps him coming back. It’s fun for him, but he can’t see how it could be much fun for the audience. Sometimes he ventures a sideways glance at the patrons and he sees looks of delight and surprise—and blank expressions, too.
18. J is utterly blind to the source of his misery. As a result he lashes out, not even having the sense or good grace to channel his anger into wry self-deprecation, which would make him much easier to take. He fails to grasp the utility of sublimation. Every year, he petitions the nationally acclaimed school of music to award him a degree, based on his “real world” experience, most of which has nothing to do with music.
D, on the other hand, knows the precise nature of her problem: it’s her cowardice. She does not want anyone to see her trying and failing—and she is sure she would fail. Even if she could get past her fear of shame, if she cannot have things as she pictures them, she does not want them.
19. E, F, and I become university employees.
E becomes Assistant Director of the marching band at a mid-sized Midwestern university. She loves her work, loves how hard the kids work. They arrive during summer break, weeks before the other students, and they practice hours every day during the school year, fitting in homework during the times when the other kids play video games, get drunk, or fix their hair and make-up before going out to get drunk. Sometimes, when E is poised on the grandstand at practice, her arms raised, a vision appears before her: a mound of used reeds, discarded mouthpieces, dented mutes, bent stem cleaners—decades of band garbage that she herself has plucked from the practice field year after year, touched with her bare hands the spit-slick and breath-moistened. Other times the phantom odor of well-worn band uniforms fills her nose—BO so deeply hormonal that the stink clings to the inside of E’s van, weeks after she’s delivered the uniforms to the dry cleaner, giving E the experience of piloting a crotch or an armpit down the road, day after day. But on the grandstand, E does not hesitate. She cannot keep the students waiting in the blazing sun with their heavy instruments. Later, she does not wonder about the meaning of these phantasms.
F becomes a counselor at a university in the South, where students still refer to Northerners as “Yankees”—with irony, of course. The students could not be more polite and well mannered. In her spare time, she plays music with some of the faculty and students. Because the students graduate in an orderly manner, they are always coming and going from F’s life. She becomes attached to them, which she knows is sad. Her best friend is a gay playwright-in-residence who weeps for the lack of gay men on the side of the mountain on which the school is built. They host rip-roaring costume parties, to which students and their parents are invited. F thinks how phony is the divide between teacher and student, adult and—what? Quasi-adult? The students are simply people with less experience and knowledge, though in many cases that is arguable. She knows that some of them know things she doesn’t, and even though they are younger, they have skills and experience that she doesn’t. She tries to get to know each of them as individuals with their own peculiar interests and desires. After many years, she has yet to meet a truly boring student. They seem vanilla on the outside, with their brand-correct clothing and sunglasses and their fit physiques, but she knows that on the inside she will find what makes each of them unique. These excavation projects excite her and she hoards the strange details of their lives, for no particular use but her own wonderment. In fact, she finds the duller the student’s exterior, the more faceted and sparkling the interior. Sometimes the blander ones are buried so far inside themselves their very appearance in her office exhausts her. They have no idea what’s inside them. They move through their days like scared animals responding to stimuli.
She takes them on adventures. Unusual activities in unfamiliar settings disarm them; they talk, and they reveal themselves to themselves— and to her—without realizing it. Rock climbing for the timid; nursing orphaned wild life for jocks; white water rafting for the repressed; thrift-store shopping for the fastidious; headstone-rubbing for the overly ambitious. She remembers one student in particular, always impeccably groomed: peach-picking with this one, over summer break; the student refused to meet her parents on the island of their habitual summering, so F and the young woman plucked just-ripe peaches and made pies with intricate cut-outs and lattice-work. While rolling dough in F’s elegantly un-remodeled and un-air-conditioned kitchen, the young woman recalled sitting by her baby-sister’s crib each night, watching the child breathe. She’d fall asleep on the floor, night after night, until her parents sent her to boarding school. Now, her sister attends school in Paris. The two meet in Europe for holidays, spurning their parents; their parents pay for the trips, including a suite in a five-star hotel, though the sisters sleep in the same bed. F glanced from time to time at the girl’s face as she told her story, noting the color creeping into her cheeks, her hair going lank around her face from the heat and steaming pots of peaches. “What should we do with all this pie?” F asked. “Give it away,” the girl said, “to whoever wants some.”
I is a full professor of music and new media at a major research university. He is hot shit. For a while, he perceives no ironic distance between who he is and who others take him to be: hot shit, inside and out. He remembers the particular kind of asshole he was in school and realizes that in some ways his confidence and focus benefitted him, and in others did him harm: he performed poorly in subjects he didn’t care for, and no one reached out to guide him because he was such a jerk. He spots students like him—actually, they flock to him. As gently as possible, he tries to convince them to be less like him, but the evidence is more persuasive than his words; he invites them to his home to make music and they see all his instruments, the electronic equipment, the artwork. He disappears in the middle of the semester to travel to international conferences to which he has been invited as distinguished guest. He watches them watch him, those assholes, and he doesn’t know what to do. “I’ve been lucky,” he tells them. “You’re a fucking genius,” they say. Because of him, they believe in themselves utterly, believe they will one day prevail.
I remembers H, the real fucking genius, who could take music centuries old and make it new. When H conducted, they were capable of surprising themselves and each other. He thinks often of his fellow students. No one had more heart than F; every event touched her, and she transformed it and her emotions into wondrous performances. He wonders how she’s getting along, what gifts she bestows on whom. And J, that crazy bastard. Did he harness his epic rage? He thinks about D’s toughness, how they tormented her about her big shirts. No one could sing like her. G and E worked like devils, never showing the signs of wear or resentment that often come from working harder than everyone else. A had been so humble and sane; he was probably running an orchestra somewhere. B was changing the country, motivating people to get off their asses and really make a difference. She could have done anything; she could have been the college professor. But she was helping others in what, to I, was the more noble cause. And C made millions with his ingenious tunes—popular music so fresh and surprising that I had to pull his car to the shoulder to listen once or twice. C pleased himself and yet managed to delight others. I could not say the same of his own work, which mostly no one outside his small circle cared about. This is what he’d wanted.
Even so, I knows that he has had more success than he deserves. To compensate, he devotes himself to nurturing his students; maybe they will be better than he is, in every sense; maybe they will become people who fully deserve their success. In this way, over the years, I becomes less and less like the asshole he once was.
Margaret Luongo on her story:
Probably because I’m terrible at math, I had been wanting to write a story in the form of a word problem. I couldn’t think what the story might be about, though, until we attended the Cincinnati Fringe Festival two years ago. A small group performed John Cage’s Radio Music. Clearly these were trained musicians, and most of them were young. I looked around the audience and wondered what people thought of this chaos, if that’s what it was—young men and women, fiddling with radio knobs, a string quartet bowing, plucking, vocalizing. Some of musicians looked happy, playful; others were intently focused. I wondered what had happened to them in their professional training and experience to lead them to this stage. That was the question the story would answer.
Bonus Material from the CR staff:
Michael Griffith: Margaret Luongo’s “Word Problem” is a marvelous oddity. It wins the reader (this reader, anyway) early and for keeps with what look like old-style virtues—accessibility, psychological acuity, a breezy-seeming confidence. It is what reviewers sometimes call “propulsive”; one knows instantly that one is in good hands, and one reads eagerly to the end to find out what happens to the characters. But this is also risky and formally innovative fiction. The story seems to make a stab at reviving old-style omniscient narration, which is both as old as the quills and about as often used, these days, or maybe Luongo provides instead a parody of omniscience, of the idea that people’s fates may be tracked with mathematical (or godly) precision. Or no . . . the amazing thing is that the story is not either of these things, but both—re-creation of omniscience and satire of it—at the same time, and it pursues these diametrically opposed ends with the same apparent sincerity, and to great effect. The result is a story that is simultaneously a sophisticated experiment and an old-fashioned pleasure.
Becky Adnot-Haynes: What I like about Margaret Luongo’s “Word Problem” is that its scope—it is an impressive, multi-perspective narrative in which characters are represented by letters, not names—allows the author to work in exacting specificity while also illustrating sweeping truths about the temperaments and fates of creative people. In lovely and well-drawn detail, the story conjures the musical detritus of amateur practices and performances—the “mounds of used reeds, discarded mouthpieces, dented mutes, bent stem cleaners,” and the narrator’s voice, too, is a delight, ranging from solemn (we imagine a stern teacher: Remember, this is a test, children) to playful, impish: “He is hot shit. For a while, he perceives no ironic distance between who he is and who others take him to be: hot shit.” More broadly, the story brings to light the deepest fears of anyone contemplating a career in the creative arts: that they will suffer a macaroni-and-cheese-fueled breakdown, that they will give up their art entirely to become “an excellent conductor of household affairs,” or—worst of all—they will become teachers who are bored by their students, treading water until they “run from the task, the way a healthy animal flees the carcass of a fallen member of its species.”
Taking a personal stake in the fates of Luongo’s characters is irresistible not only to aspiring musicians but to anyone whose chosen career dictates that they be either psychotically hardworking or slightly nuts or doomed to failure (another profession—ahem, writing—comes to mind). And in a world where academic jobs for graduates of creative writing programs are few and far between, Luongo’s story inspires the would-be writer—at least, this one—to ask herself which of these characters, so idiosyncratically drawn and real, is most like her: the even-tempered hard worker who ekes a career out of her mediocre talent? The insecure perfectionist? The genius who writes “evocative, nonsense verse”? (Okay, that one’s probably not me.) And more important, Luongo invites us to wonder, as she allows the futures of her characters to unfold—which of these fates is preferable?
Brian Trapp: The word problem is a well-established fictional genre, used by such heavy-weights as Updike and Barthelme. You might’ve even given it a shot on that sixth-grade math test when you didn’t know the answer and just started writing about a guy named Bill. In Margaret Luongo’s “Word Problem,” she uses the form as a container for her impressive ambition and assigns herself quite a doozy: Can you tell the story of ten music students over their careers, in a multiple point-of-view panorama of finely-observed success, defeat, compromise, and adaption, which is by turns both funny and heartbreaking, both dark and hopeful? And can you provide your answer in less than fourteen pages? Luongo’s answer seems utterly true and absolutely correct.
Her characters are only identified by their word-problem letters (I, J), but she juxtaposes these abstract tags with the just-right, realistic human details that illuminate their individual lives. She starts with their student roles, and then sprawls into the future, focusing on their compromises as parents, lovers, politicians, performers, and teachers. These characters are pondering word problems of their own. As a character questions his ambiguous relationship with a mentor, he thinks about his mother’s snide insult at a party: “The rocks in his head fit the holes in hers,” but now finds it true and oddly tender. Luongo writes: “Holes, rocks—all that matters is the fit.” Other characters wonder at the comic, visceral disappointments inside success: A classmate, now a university marching-band director, contemplates the body odor of band uniforms clinging to her van, which feels like “piloting a crotch or an armpit down the road.” Luongo also shows how old identities haunt us: a character who has gone on to a career in politics wakes up “to find her fingers moving across the neck of her phantom guitar.” In her answer, Luongo ponders the idiosyncrasies of human fate, the gap between who we were and who we end up being, and the mysterious relativity of success.