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Vauhini Vara's 'This is Salvaged' explores womanhood, art as social activism

Vauhini Vara is the author of "This is Salvaged." (Andrew Altschul)
Vauhini Vara is the author of "This is Salvaged." (Andrew Altschul)

Vauhini Vara’s debut novel “The Immortal King Rao” wove climate change, capitalism, and genetic manipulation into a sweeping family saga. The book is a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year.

 

Her follow-up book, however, goes in a much more intimate direction; Vara’s beautiful new collection of short stories takes us into the lives of women and girls, who often struggle to connect and communicate.

 

Vara started writing the first story in “This is Salvaged” back in 2008 during her mid-20s. Now in her early 40s, she watched her perspective on the characters — from little kids to parents —  shift over time.

 

“Often for me, a story will start with some situation, maybe a situation I’ve been in or somebody I know has been in,” Vara says. “And then I think about, ‘what it would be like to sort of dial that up to 11 and make the situation the most tense or awkward or upsetting?’”

The cover of “This is Salvaged” by Vauhini Vara. (Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company)

Book excerpt: ‘This is Salvaged’

By Vauhini Vara

Marlon had reached the point in life—the midpoint—at which time starts to run out. He had grown up poor and forgone art school, less because he couldn’t afford it, though he couldn’t, than because he didn’t know such an option existed. It was true that he’d come up in life. He wasn’t unsuccessful. He had won awards over the years, had been exhibited, had been invited to give lectures to pale, serious, twig-armed students on midwestern college campuses. The problem was that he made installations, which were difficult to sell in general, and on top of that, his particular installations were meant to be impermanent: He built them out of feathers, sand, leaves, human hair and waste—his medium being the fragile and perishable—and, rather than binding them together or preserving them with the usual substances, glue or shellac, he arranged a room with his materials, in as correct a formation as he could figure out, then let them be. He envisioned the art degrading as people interacted with it, until it transmogrified into something else altogether. Often, though, a piece would stay intact for weeks because no one had wit enough to touch it. To explain that they were supposed to touch it, to instructionalize the message, would defeat the purpose.

During the summer of the midpoint—the midpoint’s midpoint—it all came to a head. He filled a large white-walled room in an art gallery in Aspen with a giant sand castle that rose nearly to the ceiling, impressed with intricately arranged strands of his wife’s black hair that he’d dustpanned up from the bathroom floor. People were meant to kick the castle. Tug at the hairs. But no one did, until finally a couple wandered in with their toddler, and the child nudged a small bridge, low to the ground, with his little sneaker. It collapsed. The parents cried out in mortification, then blamed each other, then went to find the gallerist, who explained, laughing in relief, that this was the point of it all. The point being that in the future none of this would exist in any recognizable form, its component parts scattered into some yet-unknowable configuration. Marlon didn’t mean just the art. He was referring to the extinction of all terrestrial life. The universe continuing on even after we had all been atomized and wind-scattered.

It wasn’t supposed to be serious. It was supposed to be comical—an anxious and rageful type of comical, but comical nonetheless. People were meant to laugh! Instead, after the couple learned the point and returned to the exhibit space to spread the word to other gallery-goers, they all made grave little muttering sounds, then set about pinching and prodding at the structures. The piety of it all. The problem was that art patrons were rich, which twisted up their sensibilities. They had lost so little, so seldom, that they were inexperienced at handling it; they stood stiff-backed and solemn before loss, believing—maybe from the movies—that this must be the right pose. Normal people, the poor and poorish masses who had lost much and lost it often, knew the truth, which was that you had to laugh. But normal people, by and large, didn’t care for art galleries. He realized all this now, but he hadn’t always known it. He hadn’t spent enough time with rich people, before he started showing his art, to know how different they were from normal people, and by the time he began, it was too late.

He and his wife had been living in Fort Collins, where she worked at a hospital and he taught occasionally at the state university. Irina had married him because she had found him charming at first, and he had married her because he loved people precisely to the extent to which they found him charming. The trouble was that charm, by its nature, wears off; successful charm involves an element of surprise, which time erodes. They used to have a game in which Marlon would ask, “Are you mad at me?” and Irina would run over and cover him with kisses: she wasn’t mad at him, she would never be mad at him! But after a while, she changed the rules. He would ask, “Are you mad at me?” and she would clench her face

at him and respond in Russian, her native language, a phrase that had no direct English translation but meant something like, “That’s enough, let’s change the subject,” and he would have a grim feeling that she was gathering the courage to leave him, like all those women before her.

These days, Irina worried about money. She kept pointing out that they were closer to the end of their working lives than the beginning. She had tried to convince him to look for more consistent employment, in product design, for example, and when he refused, she had suggested that they move to Modesto, California, where several of her Russian nurse friends lived well. She brought it up often, and each time she mentioned the town, it sounded to him like she was screaming it. Modesto! Modesto! Even its name proclaimed its meagerness. Sometimes he felt murderous. To avoid murdering her, he decided, a couple of days after the incident with the toddler and the bridge, to leave. He took his savings out of the bank, in cash, put half of it in his wallet—thirty hundreds—and packed his truck full of sketches, notebooks, clothes, his bike. Irina was sleeping because she worked odd hours at the hospital. She would come home at noon after a twelve-hour shift and wouldn’t wake till dinnertime. So he did all this unnoticed. He wrote a note and put it next to her phone: “I couldn’t take it anymore, which isn’t to say I’ve killed myself,” he wrote. “For a wild surprise, look outside!” Then he laid half of his cash—the other thirty hundreds—on the front lawn. He got into his truck. As he drove, he imagined her out on the lawn in her cerulean nightgown, her hair wild, clutching armfuls of bills against her chest and realizing she missed him.

That night, as he slept in his truck in the parking lot for a trail that ran alongside the Poudre River, he dreamt that the Poudre had flooded, but instead of sinking, his car had risen up with it and floated. He had climbed out the window and onto the roof and paddled with his hands, rescuing stranded citizens as he went. When he woke up, his nerves felt sharp-edged, somewhere between anxious and exhilarated. It had started raining in the night. It was still raining. He got out of the car and, in the rain, posted a video about his plan to build an ark.

Excerpted from “This Is Salvaged: Stories” by Vauhini Vara. Copyright © 2023 by Vauhini Vara. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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