This present tense story, "The Upside-Down World," is divided into fifteen sections alternating between Gertrude/Jim and Elodie/Ted narratives. Gertrude has gone off her meds and ended up in Nice. She's from Baltimore. Her brother, Jim, goes to "rescue" her. We find out later that she's always had some difficulties with her mental health and for a while lived on the streets of Long Beach, California. Jim lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and nine-year old daughter, Claudia.
Elodie is seventeen and lives by conning and cunning. She and Ted have hooked up for the time being. Elodie steals Gertrude's purse from the beach and in a coincidental turn of events, Elodie and Ted plan to pickpocket Gertrude and Jim not realizing that Elodie has already stolen Gertrude's purse from the beach.
The story moves back and forth between the two narratives with the two couples occupying the same space in the thirteenth section of the story. There are a lot of interesting details about Nice and the hotel Negresco. I particularly liked the description of Gertrude imitating the Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture.
"A middle-aged couple, both wearing T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, has entered the salon and is staring at a life-size sculpture of a shiny yellow woman with her arms in the air and her one leg kicked out behind her. Maybe she's supposed to be dancing, but to Elodie she looks as if she's teetering on the edge of something, trying not to fall. The middle-aged woman pantomimes the sculpture: her arms int he air, one leg behind her, and sure enough she does teeter a little, until her husband grabs her by the arm--a little forcefully, it seems to Elodie--and says something that makes the woman burst out laughing." That kind of sums up the story, Elodie imagines Gertrude and Jim are a married couple. Gertrude is off her medication and acting a bit histrionic. Her brother is there to catch her and make sure she's rescued.
Another detail I really like is that Jim is an alderman at home and the task that he is missing because he's in Nice rescuing his sister, is voting whether or not the town should require leashes on cats. Jim's life is like attempting to herd or corral cats and we all know that is impossible. His world is a bit "upside-down" as depicted in Chagall's paintings that Elodie sees in the museum. Elodie also remembers the painting, The Raft of Medusa, that her mother took her to see, castaways who will become cannibals. Elodie is a parasite/cannibal the way she lives off of others.
I've only touched on some of the details and descriptions that make this a wonderful story and is the type of story that can be read again and again. "The Upside-Down World" was first published in Subtropics and then included in the 2015 edition of The O'Henry Prize Stories. Becky Hagenston teaches at Mississippi State University.
Becky Hagenston's website
an interview, Hagenston and Prairie Schooner