No More Focaccia?

In Jordan Harrison’s “Maple and Vine,”

“Here are some things you’ve never heard of:
Baba Ganoush.
Whole grain bread.”

Contemporary New Yorkers Kathy and Ryu, who were “happy in a tranquilized sort of way,” have quit their Manhattan digs for a permanent slice of 1950s heaven. Their new home, the “Society of Dynamic Obsolescence” (SDO), is a willfully backwards re-enactment zone where it’s eternally 1955. Naturally, some sacrifices have had to be made.

“Jamaican Jerk.
That one is hard for me.
But I do without.
You’ll do without too.”

It starts with a six month trial. But Kathy takes to those cartoony dresses and learns to hold her torso. Ryu, her Asian-American husband, comes to relish the earnestly patronizing “counter prejudice” of his co-workers and neighbors. (At one point the cheerfully caustic town matron exclaims, “To think, just a few years ago we were putting you people behind fences, and now you’re working right there alongside us. Isn’t it grand. America.”) What once were dress-ups become just dresses.

“No Kalamata olives
No pine nuts
No pesto
No Lattes.
That’s hard for a lot of people.”

Lattes were new to me when I moved to New York as an NYU freshman. It all started with an overstuffed “Welcome Week”—hall events, tourist adventures, bookstore runs. One event in particular, about making the city’s infrastructure work for you, underscored the subtext of the whole orientation: This is a new world. If you’re going to survive, adapt. Learn the lingo. Find your New York you.

NYU, then, was its own little SDO, my personal, assumed culture. Planting my feet in this new, big apple, I suppose I unconsciously, involuntarily wondered, who will I be? What will I adopt? What will I forget?

“Maple and Vine” is startling because Kathy and Ryu ask these kind of transition questions deliberately. Theirs is a universal experience (everyone has been transplanted somewhere) but it is usually less abrupt and so gradual as to appear passive. The alarming experience of observing the creation of Kathy and Ryu’s carefully modulated existence is to see passivity made active, to wonder what’s real and what’s assumed—and if there’s any difference between the two. Who’s the “you” speaking? It becomes a deliciously murky question that unnervingly asks you to consider the culturally relativity of your character.

Gradually, of course, Kathy and Ryu’s transformation completes. The assumed become inherent and culture becomes identity.

What you get
Is salt.
You get pepper.
You get dried oregano. Basil.
Parmesan in a can.
Paprika, if you want a little kick.
It’s a relief, the limitations. You’ll find that it’s a relief.

Here in limitless New York City, where you can “press a few buttons and a tub of Haagen-Dazs [comes] ten minutes later,” I’ve got the lingo down: “My monthly pass just ran out so I’m Hopstopping the walk to TJs,” I might say.

I’ve mastered the jargon.

Sneaky grin on its face, “Maple and Vine” might say the jargon’s mastered me.


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