Book Review: “How Strange a Season Is”, Megan Mayhew Bergman | Books | Seven days
Megan Mayhew Bergman is more of a kind of writer. Author of three collections of short fiction, including the new What a strange seasonshe was also regular columnist for the British newspaper The Guardianreporting on the climate emergency and the turbulent contemporary culture of our country.
Mayhew Bergman was born in South Carolina and spent much of her first 30 years in North Carolina. Like she said Seven days via email, “I love to complicate an all-encompassing notion of the American South. Many people – including New Englanders – just see it as ‘over there,’ a monolithic bloc of conservative fans of NASCAR I think the southern United States is worse than people think, and also much better – there is no “one” in the south.”
Mayhew Bergman moved to Vermont in 2009 when his partner, who grew up in Shaftsbury, moved back to the state to join his family’s veterinary practice. She currently teaches environmental literature and writing at Middlebury College, where her classes include “The Feminine Heroic”, “Women in Conservation Writing”, and “Class and Conservation in the American South”. She is the director of Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference and served as a writer-in-residence at the Conservation Law Foundation, helping train lawyers and scientists to deliver what she called more “emotional” testimony and editorials.
“One of my passions in life,” she wrote to Seven days“is to explode an idea of what ‘environmental writing’ can be and who can consider themselves an ‘environmental writer’.”
Asked about her divergent backgrounds as a writer, Mayhew Bergman described herself as “a huge fan of short fiction and its artistry – compression, line-level focus, well-placed turn. I’m also a big nerd waking up in a panic about environmental degradation – I love being able to honor that side of myself in non-fiction,” she continued. “The forms feed off each other. Because I have non-fiction outlets, I can (largely) keep the straightness out of my short fiction.”
Her new storybook involves the climate emergency more than it describes it. In “A Taste for Lionfish”, an unnamed narrator whose lover is gone tries to ease her grief by working as a canvasser for an environmental group. His mission is to persuade the residents of a North Carolina fishing community to eat an invasive species, which is poisonous if touched but “abundant and free, and it tastes good”. She is a miserable failure at work.
In the story “Inheritance,” which takes place halfway across the country, a young woman moves to northern California to take possession of a house bequeathed to her by a grandmother who had come to despise the rest of the family. The house is a mid-century modern “glass box”, precariously situated on a precipice above the Pacific Ocean and buffeted by increasingly strong storms.
The future was getting closer, she thought. A huge landslide and rock had swept over the road and into the ocean like a giant tongue.
All the women of What a strange season seem dumbfounded – not by war, hunger, eviction, or addiction, but by the anticipation of impending disasters that are still mostly out of sight, but happening fast.
And these women seem like victims of their privileges. Class and racial advantages have freed them up to have odd and contradictory jobs – or no jobs at all. Marianna is a florist who creates extravagant and sculptural window displays (ephemeral, of course) for a tiny clientele. Farrah spends her days in elaborate exercise regimens. Regan, a little more enterprising, runs a retreat center in the Arizona desert, where wealthy businessmen pay to smash things with bulldozers and diggers.
Meanwhile, the men in these stories are “future exes” or, at best, “slightly estranged” from their partners; they are even more adrift than women.
Do Mayhew Bergman’s characters show us the strange deviations of human sensibility in what could be the late evening of our earthly domination? Will extreme variations proliferate among us, as the tensions and antagonisms caused by a collapsing environment become increasingly evident?
Many of Mayhew Bergman’s stories are set in the American South. Asked about her enduring relationship with this region, she replied: “Even though I lived in Vermont for thirteen years, my imagination was forged in the south, and biochemically, that’s what I feel like at home. The south also made me a writer, giving me something to forge myself against.”
The most formidable piece in the new book is a multi-generational drama set on a former cotton and sugar cane plantation. “Indigo Run” spans 138 pages, much longer and more expansive than the other stories, which on the other hand feel tightly constrained. In this short story-length work, Mayhew Bergman offers more characters, a more richly described physical setting, and more historical complexities and layered plots, with successive shifts in perspective.
Skip Spangler is a young woman who fled her southern origins to live and work in a Maine wildlife sanctuary. With terrible ambivalence, Skip was brought back to Stillwood, her family home in South Carolina, now in ruins. The story telescopes in time, going back to the estate’s colonial and slave-era origins, then moving forward to the present, bringing the reader back to Skip’s anguish as she has a vision of a emancipatory conflagration:
His father had believed that the sins of their past, all of their past, would jump out at him, and yet Skip could feel them beating in his heart and crawling under his skin. She knew she carried the sins of her parents and grandparents in her blood, something parasitic living there against her will. Their mistakes were in her, like the rings of a felled tree.
Here, at the climax of “Indigo Run,” there’s an almost gothic sense of fate – “savage and biblical, redeeming” – as humans fail to overcome the consequences of centuries-old crimes and our destruction of the natural world. .
How does Mayhew Bergman view her task as a fiction writer, journalist and teacher at what could be a turning point in our existence as a species?
“I think we fail to recognize how much pain, grief, and insecurity the average person carries in their daily lives and interactions,” Mayhew Bergman said. Seven days. “I strive to write in a way that honors messy humanity.”
From ‘Wife Days’
Farrah begins to breathe deeply. When the video is over, she walks into her large, state-of-the-art bathroom and clogs the sink. She runs the water, cups her hands and brings it to her face. She sprays her skin with thermal water, dabs it with a high-thread washcloth, then smears serum made from neonatal fibroblasts — tissue from the foreskins of human infants — under her eyes. She looks at his face and asks herself two of the three questions that govern her life:
Do I look old?
Am I crazy?
Since What a strange season (Scribner, 2022), copyright Megan Mayhew Bergman.