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Maile Meloy, Liliana

August 27, 2009

[WARNING: SPOILERS IF YOU CARE]

Fun but flimsy was my first reaction on reading the short story Liliana by American writer Maile Meloy. But, after reading it a couple of days ago, I found that it kept popping back into my head. What seemed at first to be a funny little story – about a grandmother who returns from the dead – turned out to have a few things to think about.

It is, I guess, both an inheritance and a second-chance story but with a difference. It is told first person by the thirty-something grandson, recently laid-off work and so functioning as house-father. Inheriting a little of Liliana’s millions would not be unwelcome (to him, anyhow). However, Liliana, the flamboyant independent one has left her money to the RSPCA – that is to animal welfare! When Liliana turns up on our narrator’s doorstep alive and well – at the beginning of the story – our narrator clearly thinks he’s still in with a chance.

In the next few pages – it’s a tight little story – we learn about the complexities of family, about need/neediness and about, really, the failure of imagination. We learn that if you don’t make it on the first chance, you are unlikely to make it on the second – particularly if neither situation is based on sincerity…and our narrator is not exactly dripping with that particular virtue:

…I thought about Jesus and Elvis. People had wanted them back, badly, and still do. But who would have willed Liliana back…

and

My wife, whose family is Jewish, says that I tricked her into falling in love with me by withholding my grandmother’s Nazi-movie past until it was too late, which is entirely true – I’m not an idiot.

Get the picture? This is a man who thinks he might get a job simply by using “new fonts with which to express my accomplishments”.

And so, our narrator, who had lived a somewhat Bohemian life as a child but had yearned for and created a “buttered saltines in front of TV” sort of life, is not the sort of person to engage his grandmother. “Well, you aren’t very much like your father, thankfully … But you aren’t very much like me either”. The story therefore ends much as it begins – no grandmother, no inheritance and no job. He knows he failed, but does he know why? Meloy doesn’t really answer this – and perhaps that’s part of her skill. She drops some choice words, and the rest is up to us.

(PS As well as being published online, “Liliana” appears in Meloy’s latest collection, Both ways is the only way I want it.)

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