Thursday, January 19, 2012

Beginning on a Great Ending - #50

STORY: “The Last Worders” by Karen Joy Fowler – It’s so cool that you can read it here, isn’t it?

FROM:  WHAT I DIDN’T SEE (Small Beer Press, 2010)

BASICALLY:  The narrator and her twin sister are searching for the boy they both loved in high school.  Precisely the same in every thought, wish, and fear, the sisters have agreed that the boy must be the one to choose between them.  They arrive by train in remote San Margais, where he’s recently been spotted at the Last Word Café, a venue infamous for its Poetry Slam. To the death.  But the locals evade all their questions about the place.  Amid anecdotes about San Margais’ curious history (its stain of slavery, an exquisite poet, and the despotic ruler that erased her every poem from living memory), the narrator is stunned to discover that her twin can still surprise her.

In THE LIE THAT TELLS A TRUTH: A GUIDE TO WRITING FICTION (a book I like quite a lot), John Dufresne counsels writers, “You start your ending when you write the first line of the story.”  It’s true in a very literal way (you know, just like the cheerful notion that every single breath you take is one breath closer to your last), but I prefer to think about it as an approach to beginnings.  Some stories seem one way throughout, but take on an entirely new meaning once we’ve reached the end.  And holy crap, how I love to read a story like that—I’m participating in it because not just the characters, but also I, the reader, have changed.  “The Last Worders” is a fantastic example of this kind of story.  Here’s the opening paragraph:
Charlotta was asleep in the dining car when the train arrived in San Margais. It was tempting to just leave her behind, and I tried to tell myself this wasn’t a mean thought, but came to me because I, myself, might want to be left like that, just for the adventure of it. I might want to wake up hours later and miles away, bewildered and alone. I am always on the lookout for those parts of my life that could be the first scene in a movie. Of course, you could start a movie anywhere, but you wouldn’t; that’s my point. And so this impulse had nothing to do with the way Charlotta had begun to get on my last nerve. That’s my other point. If I thought being ditched would be sort of exciting, then so did Charlotta. We felt the same about everything.
(Spoiler-Avoidance Reminder: You can totally go read the whole thing for yourself at Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet before I ruin everything.  Okay?  Okay.)

You guys, this is a brilliant first paragraph.  There are SO many things right about it.  I will use a handy bulleted format to break it down.
  • We get the narrator’s particular voice right off—conversational, kind of wry and dark (“It was tempting to just leave her behind”), but prone to equivocation.  We’re not sure where she stands, morally speaking.
  • Charlotta’s name gets mentioned three times right off the bat, which, considering her importance, is no accident.  We’re immediately introduced to the way that her thoughts and the narrator’s thoughts are so intertwined as to be nearly indistinguishable.  Most crucially, the tension between the sisters is already seething.
  • Not just tension, either.  Thoughts of abandonment.  Competition.  Acting on impulse.
  • And the setting?  On a train, traveling to a remote place called San Margais.  The train evokes romantic travel scenes of yore, but then the narrator muses about “the first scene in a movie,” so we know it’s more or less modern.  The atmosphere here, as in the rest of the story, is steeped in desire and insecurity and a heady sense of adventure.
  • Basically, this paragraph is a microcosm of the whole story.
  • And the big thing, the main number one thing, is that all this information is conveyed without the sentences seeming to do anything at all except provide a beginning.  There’s nothing beating a reader over the head with its self-conscious cleverness, no blinking neon sign imploring us to TAKE NOTE IMPORTANT FOR LATER, nothing to suggest that this paragraph contains anything at all except vital narrative that eases us into the story.
But the entire ending is encased in the thoughts that begin the story.  The abandonment of one sister by the other does actually take place—what’s so fascinating, of course, is that it means the narrator was right: the twins really do think exactly alike.  She’s right and yet she’s wrong, because one of the story’s last lines is her claim, “I would never have done to Charlotta what she had done to me.”  So is she an unreliable narrator or a reliable one?  Every piece of the story must be reconsidered in the light of the ending—all the characters’ vagaries and biases take on new weights as we mull over the evidence.  The story’s final image, with the narrator climbing the interminable stone steps from the gorge and arriving at the top alone, in the dark, also recalls the beginning’s sense of adventure while simultaneously changing its meaning.  Karen Joy Fowler uses her beginning and her ending to form a circular kind of structure in her story, and man, it’s a powerful technique. 

* * *

Soooo…Hi.  It’s been a while.  Like, a big little while.  I’ve missed my lovely readers (the few, the delightful, the fairly nerdy) and the indulgence of an outlet for my incurable over-analysis.  Stupid life, getting in the way of my blogging.  Still, Story Number Five-Oh is an exciting place to pick up the thread in an exciting new year, and even if I might have to change the name of this blog to A Hundred Stories in About a Year and a Half Or Maybe Two But I’m Not Promising Anything, I hope you’ll continue to hang out and enjoy the journey with me.  I revamped a couple of things (see, for example, the new page of Optional Explanations) so please do take a look around and let me know if I broke anything else on the blog in the process.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

If this blog were called "Year of 50 Stories," I would have totally kicked ass.

Incredible time-crunch/time-suck events of late.

We'll be back soon, folks.  I promise.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Walk A Mile in My Chaps, Cowboy - #47, 48, and 49

STORY:  “The Colonel’s Lady” – “Blood Money” – and “The Nagual” - by Elmore Leonard


BASICALLY:  Action-packed Westerny goodness.
  • “The Colonel’s Lady” (1952) – An infamous Apache bandit kills a party of travelers and takes the lone woman hostage, hustling her upstream.  They’re pursued by a US Army tracker who hopes against hope he’ll reach them before she’s the victim of further atrocity.  Twist ending.
  • “Blood Money” (1953) – A gang of five bank robbers has apparently killed a man during its most recent heist. The marshal and his posse pursue the four hardened criminals and one boy, trapping them in an old dead-end mining canyon.  Then the wait begins.  Another twist ending.
  • “The Nagual” (1956) – An old man, a vaquero his whole life but now disabled and unable to do much more than mend fences, is aware of the affair between his boss’s wife and the man who breaks his boss’s horses.  When the boss gets wind of the affair and takes a drastic action, the old man has a decision to make.  Cute ending, but not really a twist.

Amazingly, even after my gargantuan (sorry!) analysis of a formulaic noir story in #46, I still wasn’t tired of reflecting on how pulp writing does what it does.  And even though I think TYoOHS’s Library Month started, like, ninety-two years ago, I’ve still got plenty of great material to go through.  (Hooray for online renewal.)  This collection of Elmore Leonard Western stories was a perfect fit for my mood.  On one level, these are basic pieces of fiction that are easily categorized—good guys, bad guys, classic otherworld setting, lots of men doing archetypally manly things with guns and horses and whiskey.  Being a Western raises certain expectations in readers; it has to deliver if it’s going to succeed.

But what I discovered in reading these three Westerns is that Elmore Leonard knows how to use the formula as a jumping-off point, not an end.  Formulaic conventions are unarguably present—after all, that’s part of what it means to be a story in the Western genre—but what’s impressive is how well he masks them.  The guy is clearly brilliant.  In the introduction, Leonard’s quoted as saying that when he decided to become a writer, “I looked for a genre where I could learn how to write and be selling at the same time…I chose Westerns because I liked Western movies.”  But then he went and wrote “twenty-seven of the thirty stories in this volume” in the five years between 1951 and 1956, which is a pretty fantastic learning curve.  Of course, he benefited from a thriving market for the Western story, a market that dried up by the end of the fifties.  But you’ve gotta admire his practicality and drive, combined with what’s clearly a significant natural talent.

In that formulaic murder story discussed in #46, as well as in Dashiell Hammett’s formulaic detective story discussed in #39, a single POV narrates the action in a straight linear arc.  That’s what makes those stories so simple and so analyzable.  They’re fun, but they are not complex.  These three Westerns, on the other hand, feel far more complicated.  Where Elmore Leonard breaks away from the pack, I think, is in his manipulation of point of view (POV).

All three of these stories are told in third person—never “I,” always “he”—but it’s mostly a close third person.  That means that instead of some distant god-like narrator, we’re as close to the character as if it were in first person.  We see the individual’s thoughts and feelings, and we’re in their head as they take in the world.  For example, in “The Colonel’s Lady,” we begin inside the POV of the Apache bandit Mata Lobo:
He inched his body upward until he was standing, placed a foot on a rung of the baggage rack, and pushed his body up until his head was above the coach. He was confident of his own animal stealth. A gun could be waiting, but he doubted it. Only a fool would have moved, knowing he was just outside. A fool, or a child, or a woman.
But Leonard doesn’t stay there.  After Mata Lobo captures the woman and sets off, we switch POV to the unit of soldiers that find the ruined stagecoach.  The narration begins distantly, but soon settles onto the POV of their young leader Phil Langmade.  Like his men, he’s exhausted and filthy from their most recent patrol, and finding this horrific scene is the last thing he could have wanted—especially because the coach contained the Colonel’s wife.  Experience tells him there’s almost no chance she’s still alive.

During this part of the story, Phil Langmade is unsure what to do, and he’s even scared to look inside the coach for fear he’ll find the corpse of the Colonel’s wife.  But civilian scout Simon Street has already noticed her footprint on the riverbank and reports that the bandit—he surmises that there was only one, and who it probably was—has taken her away on foot.  We stay in Langmade’s point of view and so get introduced to Simon Street through his eyes; mainly, he admires the scout’s abilities and trusts his judgment.  By the time Leonard changes the POV again, this time to Simon Street himself, we understand that this guy is the best of the best—and even he doubts this episode will turn out for the best.  The stakes feel very high indeed.

Leonard uses POV switches in all three of these stories.  In “Blood Money,” the change-ups are even more freewheeling, moving liberally between the escaping criminals and the lawmen pursuing them.  When you think about it, a standoff between a bunch of robbers and a marshal’s posse is about as formulaic as Western plots come.  But by building the story up through successive layers of POV, Leonard complicates the narrative.  A simpler story might keep us in the POV of the criminals, and then the lawmen become their antagonists, and either our bad guy protagonists succeed or they don’t.  Or it might make the lawmen the POV protagonists, the criminals the antagonists, and then the same question would hold.  But by jumping around between POVs frequently, the reader is never sure whose side they’re supposed to be on—which allows Leonard to make this a story about a young criminal’s chance at redemption, instead of what you think at first, that it’s just a story about whether or not some bank robbers get caught.

You’re probably wanting to know how Leonard switches POV so often without being annoying about it.  It’s a good question.  I feel sure it’s a good question because I can’t quite figure out the answer.  It has something to do with purpose, I know—every time the POV changes, it’s for a specific narrative purpose.  It might be to increase tension (as when we leave Mata Lobo with his helpless hostage), or it might be to set up another character (Phil Langmade’s evaluation of the scout Simon Street), or it might be to give the reader more information than a character has (as when we learn from a “Blood Money” lawman that the kid involved in the bank hold-up and attempted murder can probably avoid being hanged for his crime).  In any case, the changes in POV aren’t arbitrary and they don’t repeat information.

In “The Nagual,” Leonard chooses to use fewer changes in POV, providing an interesting contrast.  Most of the action occurs through the eyes of seventy-year-old Ofelio Oso, who keeps to himself and goes often into the hills to look at the stars and meditate on the approaching end of his life.  Unlike in “Blood Money,” “The Nagual” has a single unambiguous protagonist.  Even so, we don’t stay inside his mind the whole time.  For example, when Ofelio is waiting to pick up his boss from the stagecoach station, he hangs out with some other roughnecks who get a kick out of teasing him about going off into the hills.  They try to goad him into talking about “the devils” he says he sometimes sees, just so they can laugh at him.  But the POV shifts to the most sympathetic listener:
Billy-Jack Trew listened, and in a way he understood the old man. He knew that legends were part of a Mexican peon’s life. He knew that Ofelio had been a vaquero for something like fifty years, with lots of lonesometime for imagining things. Anything the old man said was good listening, and a lot of it made sense after you thought about it awhile—so Billy-Jack Trew didn’t laugh.
You might be surprised to know that, in the story, this isn’t really new information—earlier, in Ofelio’s POV, we learn about the long career as a vaquero and the propensity for thinking.  But having Billy-Jack think it, too, sort of validates it as an actual characteristic of Ofelio, not just the way the old man sees himself.  And it builds on that, too, by showing that Billy-Jack considers Ofelio to be a source of some wisdom.

“The Nagual” is the least formulaic of the Elmore Leonard Westerns I read—really, it’s pretty rad how much the stories, despite having been written within just a few years of one another, get progressively more sophisticated.  Although they all have formulaic elements, sometimes even employing Western tropes that border on the cliché, they overcome their humble foundations thanks to Leonard’s skill in making each story feel fresh.  When I talked about stories #44 and 45, I said that Margaret Drabble’s literary pair seemed strangely alike at heart, even though they had very different plots.  Remarkably, despite a shared nineteenth-century setting and masculine outlook, Elmore Leonard’s tales don’t project that feeling of sameness.  His handling of POV seems to be a big part of this, allowing him to inject change and tension into his stories at every turn.  So, go on, whether or not you think of yourself as the kind of person who reads Westerns, enjoy him for his writing chops and his ability to spin a great yarn.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Three Differents and One Menace - #46

STORY:  “The Most Beautiful Apartment in New York” by Justin Scott

FROM:  MANHATTAN NOIR, ed. Lawrence Block (Akashic Books, 2006)

BASICALLY:  Bob has finally found the New York apartment of his dreams, complete with unparalleled view of the Empire State Building.  He’s ready to buy, but the owner’s playing hardball with an exorbitant price.  Bob’s friend the real estate broker is helping as much as possible--but the friend’s newfound obsession with exacting revenge on his supposedly evil ex-wife is starting to get creepy.  A suspenseful tale with a deadly climax and a surprising final twist.

This is a story that fairly cries out to be broken down, like so many Lego castles, into its component parts.  I’m kind of obsessed with structure you guys!  Not because it’s my favorite thing about literature though—quite the opposite.  The reason I’m always wanting to know how stories are put together is that my instinctual understanding of the mechanism is precisely nada.

Now, lovely prose, that I get.  I’m making no claims to an immortal style of my own, you understand, but I do think I have a good strong gut feeling about what works and what has quality and how words sound nice together.  Sometimes I can even coax these qualities into my own sentences!  But large-scale narrative structure—like plotting, pacing, and overall balance—doesn’t come naturally to me in the slightest.

That’s why a story like “The Most Beautiful Apartment in New York” is such a boon to a writer like me.  It’s entertaining and interesting, and yet simple and formulaic enough that I can study it to understand why writer Justin Scott chose to include the elements that he did and how he knew where to put them.

I feel like I’ve got to insert a caveat, here—I definitely don’t see learning to write to a formula as one of my writerly goals.  (Noooooo!  I am lofty and high-falutin’!)  It’s not that I think formula fiction has no value, but it wouldn’t make sense for me to start penning popular thrillers; that’s not what I read and it’s not where my passion lies.  However, I do want to learn how literary formulas function.  Why are they so pleasing to readers?  What effect do certain narrative choices have?  It’s that whole “you have to learn the rules before you can break them” thing—not that you have to do anything at all, or do it in the way that I do it.  I’m just groping along in the dark, here.

I’ve run across a couple of links lately that have given me a lot to mull over in terms of formula and structure.  First, it was this breakdown by Michael Moorcock, a respected science fiction writer who’s written many a non-formulaic novel in addition to his bald-faced moneymakers.  In it, he explains his approach to churning out a 60,000-word potboiler in a mere three days.  That discovery led me to this method by Lester Dent, successful pulp writer of yore, for writing a 6,000-word short story.  Let’s take a look at some of the ways “The Most Beautiful Apartment in New York” (or “TMBAINY,” as I shall henceforth call it) accords with their principles.  By the way, some serious spoilers ahead.

So, if you look at Lester Dent’s method, you’ll see he starts right in with some good specifics about what your unique formula-driven story will need:  

One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.
I wasn’t sure what Dent meant by “different” in this context, but it seems to make sense once I apply the concepts to “TMBAINY.”  The murderer, unhinged real estate broker Tommy King, uses in this instance a scalpel.  As murder weapons go, it’s not especially shocking and in no way over the top, but neither is it the kind of thing you hear about every day.  It’s, y’know, different.  And author Justin Scott amps up the interest level by having Tommy talk about his fascination beforehand:
“I’m going to buy a surgeon’s scalpel. What she did to me. I just have to figure out how not to get caught— What’s the matter? You’ve never been mad enough to kill anybody?”
At the time, this is fairly casual.  Of course, once you know that Tommy does try to cut his ex-wife’s heart out, it’s a bit more grim.

I wouldn’t say that Tommy is seeking anything especially different in this story, but he’s not clearly a villain until most of the way through.  As Bob the protagonist’s friend and real estate broker, Tommy’s goal (revenge against his ex-wife) is meaningful because it remains hidden until the climax.

Next, Dent calls for “a different locale.”  (And check out his tricks to convince editors you’re familiar with any random faraway place.)  (I could spend forever musing about the ways such shenanigans have become both easier and harder in the Internet Age.  But I’ll spare you.)  This story takes place in New York.  New York!  Pretty-well-known slash not-so-different.  There must be a million and one other stories that take place in that city.  Yet I think Scott’s New York serves the same function that an exotic and thrilling locale would for Dent.  The main thing is that it’s absolutely integral to the story.  New York itself is intertwined with the protagonist’s goal—everyone everywhere wants to live in a nice place, but in a gargantuan city where real estate is scarce, apartment buying achieves epic importance.  The other main thing is the specificity, how place permeates this story in its smallest details.  The intractable owner, for example, insists that his apartment’s a great investment because
“Nothing will bring it down. It didn’t go when the Towers went down. I was watching on CNN thinking, Oh, God, the Empire State Building’s next, I’ll never get my price without the view. Then I realized the terrorists don’t know from shit about the Empire State Building. You gotta be a New Yorker to love the Empire State Building—sure enough, they went for the Pentagon.”
Now, this is an excellent passage for several reasons, but most fundamentally it melds the story’s What to its Where.  Plot and setting are about as elementary as narrative components come—but when they’re well-united, as they are here, they add a powerful dimension to the storytelling.  (And I don’t see how the truth of this is limited to pulp or formulaic writing.)

Last of all, Dent says a menace has to hang like a cloud over the hero.  This mystified me at first, but then I looked at “TMBAINY” and realized that a certain feeling—yea, one might even say a menace—does hang over the whole story.  Bob, as protagonist, is intently focused on his own goal: he wants that apartment something fierce.  The importance of his desire is increased by the New York setting, an external impetus, and also by his growing sense that in his life, he’s always accepted second-best—the lesser apartment, the lesser wife, the lesser life.  And then even the guy selling the apartment suggests that maybe he’d be better off buying an apartment in Brooklyn.  Infuriating!  So Bob’s got forces within and forces without pushing him to do whatever it takes to get this apartment.  He’s even willing to spend time with Tommy King, sleazeball extraordinaire.

Bob and Tommy are presented as friends, but it seems fairly clear that it’s a friendship based on, to put it nicely, practicality.  Bob is unnerved by Tommy’s ex-wife fixation and this feeling only grows throughout the story as Tommy’s fixation seems to balloon out into a real desire to do harm.  Bob also finds himself seriously doubting Tommy’s loyalty—is he showing the apartment to someone else who’ll buy it out from under him?  The story’s focus is the acquisition of the apartment, but the thing with Tommy is like a gadfly that won’t let up.  As a reader, I felt a mounting anxiety about it—I didn’t know how Tommy’s violent impulses would end up affecting Bob’s goal, but I could sense that something was going to have to give.  Of course, this only works if the two separate strands end up crashing into one another.  If that had never happened, if it had turned out that Tommy King’s ex didn’t actually figure in the story at all, it would have been baffling.  In a short story, what’s there needs to get used.

That’s something Michael Moorcock says in his advice on writing sword-and-sorcery action to formula.  I haven’t talked much about Moorcock’s approach, mainly because it’s designed to apply to a short novel rather than a short story (and even Dent’s method is meant for a much longer story than “TMBAINY”).  But one bit from Moorcock stands out because it happens to be the main way in which “TMBAINY” fails.

Moorcock says,
You need a list of images that are purely fantastic: deliberate paradoxes, say: the City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you've got them there when you need them. Again, they have to cohere, have the right resonances, one with the other.
It’s the thing about cohering that matters.  In “TMBAINY,” the conflict comes to a head with Bob humiliating himself by borrowing money from his working-class parents, who have painstakingly saved it to retire on, but then it doesn’t even matter because the owner’s already sold to a woman who wants a “pied-a-terre for her boyfriend.”  The woman just happens to be Tommy King’s ex-wife.  She has no idea that Tommy’s even involved, she just loved the place at first sight—but he is literally lying in wait for her.  As she tours her new piece of real estate, he attacks and kills her.  Bob has guessed Tommy’s plan, but he hesitates just a moment too long—fully aware that her murder would mean that “the price of that apartment was going to plummet.”

She dies.  And Bob does get the apartment, which brings us to the problem with the story’s cohesion.  Bob finds that he can’t enjoy his wonderful new apartment because everywhere he looks, he sees this woman’s ghost.  Literally.
Samantha was waiting in the window, her heart-shaped face super-imposed on the Empire State Building. Her ghost? Or just my guilty imagination reflected in the glass? Didn’t matter which, I saw her clear as I saw the sunlit spire by day and the white iceberg at night. I tried moving around the room, shifting perspective. At angles, the nineteenth-century glass distorted the light, but she kept moving with me…“Why didn’t you stop him?” she asked one morning. And that night, “You knew he wanted to hurt me.”
My big problem with this part of the ending is that it just doesn’t fit.  There’s been no indication that we’re in anything but the mundane world—now, suddenly, I’m supposed to accept a supernatural judgment?  Irascible apartment owners cohere with sleazy real estate brokers, and big-city apartment hunters cohere with ex-wives, and excellent views of the Empire State Building cohere with human motivation—but none of that coheres with the sudden appearance of a mournful, guilt-inducing ghost.

When I re-read “TMBAINY,” I realized that the author had actually mentioned ghosts numerous times before the ending.  The guy selling the apartment, for example, mentions that the only thing that brings down prices on apartments like his are hauntings.  And the word gets used metaphorically more than once.  So Scott clearly made an effort for the ghost thing to cohere.  But it fell flat; the departure was too great.  I think he would have had to include some early hint that supernatural events actually could occur in the universe of the story—lacking that, protagonist punished by his own guilt in the form of a ghost just feels like a cop-out.

Luckily, that’s not quite where the story ends.  The true ending has a much better twist, and I think I’ll leave it unspoiled for you.

Even for this major flaw, though, “TMBAINY” is a really fun little story.  To me, that’s the big power of formulaic approaches—even when other elements aren’t as strong as they could be, the formula points to the pieces that make a reader want to keep reading.  Most people, I believe, would vastly prefer an exciting and interesting tale with some slightly wooden characters and a few weird plot turns to a beautifully-composed, carefully-rendered story in which nothing seems to happen.  And to me, it’s not an either-or proposition—the very best fiction serves up pleasure right alongside art.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Calculation of Other Meanings - #44 and #45

STORIES:  “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (1964) and “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman” (1973) by Margaret Drabble


BASICALLY:  Both are stories of a repressed character who finds their self-control suddenly slipping.
  • In “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” a young man named Humphrey feels uncomfortable at a party where he doesn’t know anyone.  In one corner, an attractive redhead is holding court with her many admirers.  He makes his way to her but of course she ignores him--until he improvises a startling method for catching her attention.
  • “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman” follows television personality Jenny Jamieson as she cooks, cleans, and manages her household, attends a committee meeting, and has lunch with a clergyman whom she’ll be interviewing on her program.  But it’s her afternoon appointment that throws her whole day off-kilter and makes every interaction, except those with her children, seem meaningless.  For months, she’s been ignoring an alarming, unexplained feminine bleeding, and now the doctor confirms that she needs to return for surgery as soon as possible.  Though her condition is never explained in detail, we know it’s bad, and Jenny starts bleeding again from all the digging around the doctor did during her appointment.  She begins to reflect on death, believing her own to be imminent.  But she still shows up to her final task of the day, a speaking engagement at a girls’ school.  There, as Jenny lectures winningly about new opportunities for girls, her clothes slowly soak with blood.

And with that giant gob of Courier font washing across your monitor, you may have picked up on just how it is I plan to catch up on my Year of One Hundred Stories …(HINT:  It’s not by continuing the recent trend of not posting for large chunks of time.  Sigh.)  Actually, I declare unto you, henceforth I shall be doubling up on stories as the mood strikes me.  I am blogger, hear me roar.  My goal this year is first and foremost about reading a hundred stories and, to be honest, penning a hundred separate write-ups seems a little unnecessary.  I mean, the write-up is important (if for no other reason than that my brain is a sieve and retains nothing if I don’t write it down), but synthesizing multiple stories into a single cohesive essay is its own intriguing challenge.  Let’s see if I’m up to it, shall we?

I picked today’s stories, as usual, without much of a plan.  I happened to like their titles, and because the pieces in this collection are organized chronologically, I wanted to make sure I didn’t get two that were right next to each another.  That’s why I was so weirded out by how much each reminded me of the other.  If I’d been looking for two stories to compare and contrast, I couldn’t have chosen more aptly.  Although you can see from the outlines above that their plots are quite different, and “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman” is much longer (and therefore more multifaceted) than “Les Liaison Dangereuses,” these two stories have a curious sameness to them.  In fact, to my eyes, they represent a single basic technique, or maybe I should say an approach, as initially applied by a less-developed writer and, later, by one more developed.  They just happen to be the same writer, which is marvelously instructive.

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” published in 1964, is very short and encompasses a single action in a brief space of time.  Humphrey, a young man at a party, hovers unseen behind a beautiful and popular stranger, finally turning her attention to himself by—I’m about to spoil this for you, so hang onto your hat—by setting her hair on fire with a candle. Totally spontaneously, but totally on purpose.  Yikes, dude.  The bulk of the story leading up to this startling ending is taken up with Humphrey’s self-involved reflections on the rudeness of the other guests who ignore him, and trying to decide whether he should leave, and bitter judgments about the various attractive females who don’t so much as look at him.

What comes across about this young man is how uptight he is.  He follows the conversations around him closely, but he’s sort of shocked that no one’s polite enough to invite him into their conversations and resents that the other partygoers “seemed to be getting on quite nicely without him” and his “unoriginal views on Harold Pinter. On the other hand, he did not really want to leave.”  Humphrey begins as a person who is emotionally frozen by an unfamiliar setting filled with intimidating strangers.  But, ultimately, he surprises even himself with his ability to take action.  And here’s the zinger—Humphrey is socially rewarded for his entirely senseless (if mild) violence.  Self-assurance itself is enough to win the day, and apparently also the heart of the redhead:
“What did you do it for?” she cried, in a positive blaze of admiration, the kind of excitement kindled by duels or the Rape of the Sabine Women or indeed any violent and decisive action taken in the cause of passion.
            “Oh, well,” he said, with nonchalant pride, as though such inspirations came to him every day of the week, “I just wanted to attract your attention, that’s all.” 
Although 1973’s “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman” is far more complex—the time span is longer and augmented by flashback, the topic more serious, and Jenny Jamieson considerably more fleshed out—it likewise features a protagonist who is discovering cracks in the system of social norms she has always adhered to.  Jenny has navigated society’s demands with ease; she’s always been able do exactly what was required of her, and do it in a way that others found pleasing.
She always managed to say the right things to everyone; she never offended and yet never made people dull. She was intelligent and quick, she had sympathy for everyone she talked to, and all the time she looked so splendid, sitting there shining and twinkling…She told everybody that she loved her job, that she was so lucky, that it fitted on so well with the children and her husband…She didn’t take herself very seriously—it’s just an entertainment, she would say. I’ve been lucky, she would say. All I do is have the chats I’d love to have at home, and I get paid to do it. Lovely!
I can just imagine Humphrey, in the other story, gazing from afar at Jenny Jamieson, telling himself how stuck up she must be and simultaneously longing to be near her.  His story has him on the outside, socially, but through a sudden flash of illumination (essentially, that style counts far more than substance), he blazes his way in.  Jenny’s story, on the other hand, is one of a woman who, by dint of her own skill, talent, and effort, has mastered being on the inside, but the intrusion of her own mortality has brought to the surface the emptiness of that success.

What is our role, and how do we fulfill that role?  How do we defy it?  How much of oneself is authentic, and how much a construction?  These questions clearly interest author Margaret Drabble.  Her method of exploring them seems to be one of setting up a reflective individual to have their assumptions overturned.  Successful television interviewer Jenny Jamieson can’t seem to escape an awareness of how her own success seems to be destroying her husband, even though he’s the reason she got the job in the first place.  Jenny’s strength has served in the past, one gets a sense, to cover up his weaknesses.  She has always done everything exactly right, and yet everything is falling apart—especially herself.  The most positive thing she can think of is that she was smart enough to take out a life insurance policy on herself years before.
It had seemed a good idea at the time, and she had never regretted it. Her husband, though competent in some ways, was feckless: he was also much hated, as editors often are, and if ever he lost his power to control others, others would not waste time in trying to ruin him. She had thought to herself, some years ago, as soon as she began to earn good money, I should insure myself, for the children’s sake. Well, she had done it, she had not merely thought about it, she had done it. That was the kind of woman she was. So she need not worry about their material future.
And yet, even feeling the rightness of that decision, Jenny can’t escape the sense of having wasted her life.

Drabble engages in one technique of which I’m not especially fond.  Both Humphrey and Jenny, in their respective stories, reflect on an experience similar to their own that happened to one of their friends.  Humphrey recalls a “chap he had once known who had put a cigarette out on the back of his hand because some girl said he was a physical coward.”  The girl, he notes, “had been most impressed: indeed she had screamed loudly and burst into tears.”  Jenny reflects on a friend of hers who had committed suicide, while she, Jenny,
had comforted husband and mistress and child, in so much as it was in her to do so…So much sympathy had been lavished upon the survivors. But the woman, Jenny’s friend, was dead forever. She was beyond sympathy and love and fear. She was no more. What rage must have possessed her, at the moment of extinction, to know what tenderness would accrue to others from her death, while she lay rotting.
In both cases, I think Drabble is trying to find a way to have her protagonist reflect on the meaning of their own actions without doing so directly.  She doesn’t want to explain the moral or the point of the story directly, so she couches it in a memory suddenly coming to her protagonist’s mind.  But the sudden remembrance, occurring both times not far from the story’s end, feels to me like an intrusion.  It’s just too convenient that the guy struggling with getting a girl’s attention remembers a friend who once tried to get a girl’s attention, and that the woman who’s struggling with her own possible death remembers a friend’s death. 

Well, the second one is maybe more plausible, but, because I had already read the first story, I was probably sensitive to the repetition of it.  When people complain that a collection of short stories can seem redundant, this is what they’re talking about—so I think it’s worth bringing up as something to possibly avoid.  Or at least, to be aware of.  As different as these two stories are in terms of their plots, they feel like they’re solving similar questions in similar ways.

Still, though, they’re worth reading.  If you’re interested in tackling big social questions in your writing, Drabble is a worthwhile model.  One other point, in that vein, before I go—Drabble works outright symbolism into the ends of both of these stories in a very interesting way.  Though it’s outside of the scope of this blog to analyze what she really means by having a guy enjoy social success when he dares to do violence to a beautiful woman, and having a beautiful woman give an inspirational speech while her clothes soak with the blood of her diseased body, I want to draw attention to how well she makes both of these symbolic endings work within the universe she has set up inside her work.  It would be entirely possible to read both of these stories and not notice the symbolism at all and yet still get the stories’ import.  That is to say, the symbolic images mesh entirely with the plot and characters of the story.  (In “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” this is maybe a little less seamless—my first instinct was to be annoyed by the redhead’s giddy response—but that could well be because I’ve benefited from the intervening half a century of women’s cultural advances.) 

Though I’m no expert, it certainly seems that the success of symbolism sometimes depends on its superfluity.  What I mean is, the story would still be the story without the symbolism.  It’s just that the symbolism reinforces what the story is trying to say and makes it feel true in an indirect and non-logic-based manner.  Using symbolism well is still a pretty big mystery to me, but Drabble’s given me something to think about.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Story of the Whole World - #43

STORY: “Fermi and Frost” by Frederik Pohl – Winner of the 1986 Hugo Award.

BASICALLY: What the whole world long feared has finally come to pass--the USSR has launched a full nuclear offensive against the US. Amid the massive casualties and ensuing nuclear winter, one American man and the boy he happens to rescue are lucky enough to escape to Iceland. There, protected from the very worst of the global extinction by geothermal warmth and a society accustomed to long bouts of cold, they try to hang on to human civilization amidst the tragedy.

One thing is clear: Frederik Pohl knows what he’s doing. I, who am young and green (in writerly, if not necessarily chronological, terms), might have been tempted to begin this story post-collapse, unfolding my characters’ story in a devastated post-apocalyptic world. Then I guess I would’ve worked backstory into their conversation or something.
But what Pohl does is so much better. He begins the moment before everything changed. He begins with the recognizable:
On Timothy Clary’s ninth birthday he got no cake.
The reason for this is explained in a roundabout fashion. Timothy’s in the TWA terminal of New York’s JFK Airport, apparently alone, with nothing but some stale pastries to eat all day, and we learn that he’s wet his pants because
Getting to the toilets over the packed refugee bodies was just about impossible. There were twenty-eight hundred people in a space designed for a fraction that many, and all of them with the same idea. Get away!
This all happens in the space of a paragraph. Notice how quickly Pohl widens the scope of the narration. The story’s “camera” is focused tightly on this little boy, but it almost immediately pans out and lets us see that the story isn’t about just the little boy, but about many people—an entire nation, at least. And what’s wrong with them? The camera keeps pulling out for a wider and wider shot, until we learn,
Because there had been no launch order yet, or none that the public had heard about anyway, there might still be time for escape. A little time. Time enough for the TWA terminal, and every other airport terminal everywhere, to jam up with terrified lemmings. There was no doubt that the missiles were poised to fly. The attempted Cuban coup had escalated wildly, and one nuclear sub had attacked another with a nuclear charge. That, everyone agreed, was the signal. The next event would be the final one.
Why is beginning in this way such a masterful maneuver on Pohl’s part? I think it has to do with creating stakes. By beginning his story just before all of human civilization nearly comes to a grinding halt, Pohl grounds his story in a horrible event that feels all too plausible. The particular plight of a little boy, poor Timothy Clary, is what draws us into the story, but it’s immediately apparent that what happens to him is incidental in comparison to what seems imminent for the whole earth. 

However, if Pohl had begun after the devastation, the story could be read as pure fantasy. Whether you’re looking at Jonathan Lethem’s AMNESIA MOON or the movie MAD MAX, the dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic landscape is a trope frequently employed to have a little fun, asking important questions like, What if society completely broke down and there were no laws, but we still had cars? Such stories can be highly enjoyable, but Pohl clearly wanted to go in a different direction. “Fermi and Frost” asks a different kind of What if…? question, one that has real relevance in a world still plagued by a nuclear threat (even if an “attempted Cuban coup” is unlikely to be the triggering event anymore). This is science fiction firmly attached to knowable and known reality.

Pohl takes some interesting risks in his narration. The camera-panning-out style of narration I mentioned above could easily lapse into telling rather than showing, or it could come to seem distanced from the story it’s telling. But Pohl appears to avoid these difficulties by returning again and again to his particular characters and the realistic actions they’re taking. One moment, we’re getting omniscient narration, like this:
If the terror had passed and the frantic negotiations had succeeded, Timothy might have found his parents again in time to grow up and marry and give them grandchildren. If one side or the other had been able to preempt, and destroy the other, and save itself, Timothy forty years later might have been a graying, cynical colonel in the American military government of Leningrad. (Or body servant to a Russian one in Detroit.)
But the next moment, we’re seeing the overcrowded airport through the eyes of Dr. Harry Malibert, SETI researcher. The great scientist gets tasked with helping a sick little boy who’s wet himself, bringing the story right back to individual humans in a unique situation. It’s a brave maneuver, to let the narration swing out so far from the characters, but Pohl manages to be quite smooth about it. Ultimately, I’d say that Pohl’s combination of micro character-focused events with macro omniscient narration is what allows him to tell a fundamentally didactic moral (i.e., that nuclear weapons are a real threat) in a way that feels like a genuine piece of honest storytelling. 

* * * 

As you can see from the picture on today’s write-up, LIBRARY MONTH continues! (Not that I checked Cleo out from the library--but you can see the library barcode just behind her ear.)  In fact, I’ve recently gone spelunking amidst the stacks of a new-to-me library branch and have selected some collections that appear highly promising. I know I’ve been neglecting my bloggerly duties of late, as well as my many dedicated fans (sorry, Mom!), but I have a Nefarious Plan for catching back up. Mainly, it involves totally cheating. Am I clever or what? Stay tuned!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Linked Just By This - #42

STORY:  “The Eggy Stone” by Tessa Hadley – Once again, when I selected this story, I had no idea it was available to read HERE for free! Yay!


BASICALLY:  At a week-long school trip to camp, two girls’ hands touch the same beach pebble--the Eggy Stone--at the same moment. Over the holiday, like best friends, they pass the stone between them by elaborate rituals--but how will they share when the trip comes to an end?

Here’s another gorgeous story you can go read for yourself.  Out loud, if you’re up for it.  Some of the lines seem to long to be spoken.
We crunched in socks and sandals across a rim of crisped black seaweed and bone and sea-washed plastic: the tide was in, the long gray line of the waves curled and sucked at the cramped remainder of the beach, a narrow strip of pebbles…Under our sandals the big pale pebbles rattled and shifted awkwardly.  The boys began throwing them in the sea; we felt between them for treasures, the creamy spirals from old shells, bits of washed-soft glass.
The prose is musical; it lilts from hard to soft and, when said aloud, makes the throat open and close through a revolving progression of vowels.  Word-shape is a part of musicality—but what’s here is more than merely pretty.  This passage lays the nature scene with specific sensory details and a certain breezy-but-invigorated tone.  It mimics the movement of water with its sibilants (SockS and SandalS acroSS a rim of criSped black Seaweed) and its repetition (sea-washed plastic…in the sea…washed-soft glass). Thanks to the mention of “the boys” followed up with “we,” as in we the girls, it also manages to indicate in a masterfully understated manner that the narrator is female.  It’s pretty impressive—information like this, while crucial, isn’t always easy to slip in without being really heavy-handed about it. 

Actually, I’d like to stagger off-course for just a moment on that topic.  In my own writing, I used to think a certain amount of androgyny in my narrators was kind of clever.  I was writing about humanity and human beings, after all, not simply one gender or the other; if I had hit upon a voice, a point of view that could be interpreted in either direction, so much the better.  However, after enjoying many heaping mounds of manuscript workshopping and critique-grouping, I’ve come to learn that a character whose sex could genuinely go either way actually happens to annoy the shit out of readers.  Really.  They don’t read it as groundbreaking or delightfully playful or an interesting commentary on their own internalized gender norms.  Nope.  It just bugs the ever-loving crap out of them. 

But hey.  That’s not to say that you should never, ever do it.  Absolute rules do not exist, no matter what you might hear.  But when we take risks in our writing, we should understand what it is we’re risking.

And one other thing.  You might still fall into this trap if you try to make the sex of your narrator clear through action and voice, but you never explicitly say what it is.  My teacher Jack Trujillo at UNM once told us that if you don’t tell your reader what sex your narrator or main character is, they’ll always assume it’s the same sex as you the writer.  While a narrator that seems at one moment male and another female will frustrate your readers, the narrator that’s left undefined is assumed—without comment or much conscious thought—to be the writer’s gender.  (If something later in the story contradicts what the reader had assumed, they will move on to the annoyance I mentioned above.)  I never noticed this tendency until it was pointed out to me.  In fact, when I actually caught myself flipping to the beginning of a story to see if the writer was a man or a woman so I could figure out what POV I was reading—I realized exactly how true this observation is.  So I pass it unto you, dear readers, with my compliments.  Do with it what you will.

But back to the story at hand.  “The Eggy Stone” strongly calls to mind Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape” (a.k.a. story #31).  Besides being beautifully written, both deal with girls who become close friends for only the duration of camp, and both approach the relationship from the POV of the girl who has less social standing (“The Eggy Stone” in first person and Atwood’s “Death by Landscape” in close third).  But where Atwood’s story takes a long view and uses a remembered tragedy to link a past event to the emotional present, Hadley’s story is quieter, almost completely contained in the childhood moment it seeks to describe.

Through the course of the narrative, the Eggy Stone becomes imbued with a kind of power that links two girls who have little else in common.  It’s a bridge between two distant nations. Speaking different languages, they've got to invent their own form of communication:
We took turns holding the Eggy Stone, and the turns were decided by various ritualized competitions, including folded-paper fortune-tellers, knocking the heads off plantains, and a kind of wrestling we invented, kneeling opposite each other with the stone placed between us and swaying in each other's arms, trying to force our opponent to touch ground on one side or another. Before each competition there was a form of words: something like "Eggy Stone / On your own / All alone / Inaccessible light."
What I love about this is how it externalizes the very real kinds of tacit competition that can occur between girls (and also not-girls, I presume), even ones who are best friends at camp.  A rumination on the ways in which one jockeys for position even with the people one loves would not be nearly so effective as this glimpse into the competitive heart of these girls’ connection.

If you can get ahold of the Atwood story (HINT: try your local library!), I recommend reading it in conjunction with this one.  There’s no such thing as a scientific approach to the study of fiction (what would the control group be—a blank page?), but the subject matter of “The Eggy Stone” is so similar to that of “Death by Landscape” that their differences are truly instructive.  However, even if you’re not trying to dissect the hows and whys of short stories, Tessa Hadley’s writing is lovely and I can wholeheartedly recommend popping over to read this very short story.  Thanks Library Month—you’ve given me another introduction to yet another fabulous author!

P.S.  I couldn't decide which cute bonus pic with neighborhood kitty to include, so here's another: