Saturday, January 29, 2011

Normal Bunnies are Normal - #8

STORY: "The Last Rabbit" by Emma Donoghue


BASICALLY: Based on a historical incident, a woman becomes involved in a hoax in which she claims to give birth to rabbits. She is examined by a series of callous doctors with little knowledge of women's bodies, but is ultimately unable to maintain the illusion.

Wow. It's so normal! The subject matter is a little unusual, to be sure, but the story itself is just…a story.

Not that I wish to damn with faint praise. When a person spends so much time reading the weird, the vile-but-fascinating, the masterful, the geeky, and the experimental, a short story that just tells you what actually happened, without any tricks, seems kind of revolutionary.

Author Emma Donoghue has chosen to present her subject with very little commentary and absolutely no—what should we call them?—literary flourishes. A poor and uneducated woman named Mary Toft is convinced by her sister-in-law to begin the hoax, but the local charlatan of a doctor soon takes charge. They pickle baby rabbits in jars, and Mary learns to make her stomach jump as though little rabbits hop within, and the doctor sends off wonderstruck letters advising the eighteenth-century medical establishment that "The woman Mary Toft has just now given birth to five praeternatural rabbits, all dead, a fact of which there is hitherto no instance in Nature." As the narrator, Mary seems only tangentially involved in her own tale. It's not meant to be ironic; Mary understands, more or less, what is happening to her, and even finally draws the conclusion that

for a month I had been nothing but a body. Though I believed that every body had a soul, as my mother taught me, I had no idea where it might reside. How could there be anything hiding in me that had not been turned inside out already?
At every opportunity in this story, Donoghue chooses the straightforward path. For example, fictional works with a historical bent frequently seek to bring the reader a sense of the enormity of time, of passing centuries, of how things have changed and how they have stayed the same. Perhaps a character reflects on the future, or refers to something—a structure, an institution—that modern eyes will recognize. But Donoghue keeps her tale in the here-and-now of her protagonist and presents its entire development with total linearity. We begin just before the hoax and end when the jig is up.

The effect of this simplicity of structure and lack of varnish is both expansive and confining. Donoghue doesn't seek to comment upon Story or Narrative or any of those other postmodern concerns—she simply wishes to make a curious historical incident a little more relatable. She uncovers the inherent humanity of a person acting outside of social norms. I have the feeling that what I will remember from this story is not what the author did with it, but the very incident that drew Donoghue's own attention: a woman who claimed she could give birth to rabbits and was almost believed.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Story # 3 - Echoes of a Life Still Being Lived

STORY: "Old Mr. Marblehall" by Eudora Welty


BASICALLY: Old Mr. Marblehall is an old man whose wife has a child when they are very old, and the whole small town they live in gossips about them. Old Mr. Marblehall also has another wife in the same town, that the first doesn’t know about, and they also have a young child. Or does he?

“Old Mr. Marblehall” is only the second short story I’ve ever read from Eudora Welty, but already I’m considering organizing some sort of mini-parade for how great she is, for how huge and wild and perfect her stories are. Like most of my other mini-parades, it will mostly just be me yelling at people from my open car window, and maybe throwing books at them. These parades are not very popular with other people, and have on more than one occasion gotten me arrested, but if anyone has ever deserved one, I suspect it may be her.

The story is set in a small town, but it’s also set IN THE ONLY SMALL TOWN. There is no world outside this town, its boundaries are as limiting as the doorways at one of Bunuel’s dinner parties, and in just such an unspoken way.

The story is set in a quaint early-Twentieth-Century past, but it’s also set IN THE ONLY TIME. Nothing ever really happened before this time, nothing that really matters anyway, nothing that was any different. Sure, Old. Mr. Marblehall went to Europe once and wasn’t that impressed, but that was almost like a dream, and really he’s just like his father, another Old Mr. Marblehall, and just like his grandfather, another.

A week or two would go by in Natchez and then there would be Mr. Marblehall, walking down Catherine Street again, still exactly the same degree alive and old.

In the heat haze of this southern setting, the world is reduced to one universal, homogenous, drowsily pleasant whole, and if there are any other places, they’re not to be bothered with, and if there are any other times, a past, a future, they are just the same, come on, don’t worry about them.

There is only one town and there is only one time, and it may be there is only one person. There is only one Old Mr. Marblehall. He has a wife, and a son, and his son was born when Old Mr. Marblehall was already old, and his son seems like an old man already, like the next Old Mr. Marblehall, just smaller.

The story talks about his double life, his waiting until he was sixty to get married and have a child, but then even the term “double life” gains a double meaning, as we find out that he has another wife, also married at sixty, in the same town, with another creepy old-looking sweet child. And perhaps there are even more. Who knows, really?

You will think, what if nothing ever happens? What if there is no climax, even to this amazing life? Suppose old Mr. Marblehall simply remains alive, getting older by the minute, shuffling, still secretly, back and forth?

One critic, Alfred Appel, in his 1965 book A SEASON OF DREAMS, suggests that “the story itself is like a marble hall in which the sounds of the real world and those of the fantastic invisible world echo and resound, becoming indistinguishable from one another, each world assuming the same identity," and I think that’s accurate. I think that’s what’s going on here.

This is a life in a jar, in a closed marble hall, echoing back and forth against itself in a closed time and a closed space. That’s what I’m feeling right now, anyway, though there’s more than just that, and this is an amazing, mind-stretching story that will surely receive many re-readings by me over the rest of my life.

If I’m not killed in a mini-parade first.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

1-2-3 What Are We Writing For? - #7

STORY: "The Family" by Lydia Davis
FROM: ALMOST NO MEMORY (Picador USA, 2001, © 1997)
BASICALLY: An experimental story in which a maybe biracial family goes to the park. Something horrible possibly happens but I wouldn't swear to it. The family members are not named, but each action by each member is numbered.

Lydia Davis likes to be weird, and I admire that. She's fond of leaving her characters unnamed, of irony, of overt structural meta-commentary, and of strained relationships. She maps the circuitous routes of mental mastication, the way a thought keeps building on itself. I think her voice must have first struck me when I discovered it around 2001 because I was so accustomed to male experimental voices—Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges—and Davis was as confident and interesting as any of them, but palpably different in the way she traced the refractions between people, the way she expressed female identity.

Davis writes stories (or aphorisms) that are only a single line long, and stories (or parables) that are a paragraph, and longer short stories. But she doesn't write stories that follow established rules. She doesn't conform to norms. She has the capacity to genuinely surprise you.

The thing about breaking new ground, though, is that there's often a cost. Not everything works. A lot doesn't work at all. Of course, even failed experiments can suggest the possibility of a story that could work using that technique. Sometimes the point of experimental fiction isn't the story being told—Bitsy's in love with Dippy but Dippy loves Bootsy, yadda yadda—instead, it's about the fictional mode itself. Using the medium to examine the way we see and reveal ourselves through the medium.

With all that said, I have to admit that I don't entirely know what to make of "The Family." I picked it more or less at random, and I'm sure there are plenty of other pieces that I could have raved about, but it seems like Davis has sacrificed all the things that are enjoyable about reading a story for making an inscrutable commentary about structure and objective voice.
That sounds exactly as exciting as it is!

The story opens by setting the scene: "In the playground near the river, toward evening, in the lowering sun, on the green grass, only one family." She doesn't say that the children are swinging, but reports on the sound the swings make and how the shadows of the "swinging children foreshorten, fly over the grass into the weeds." It's all elegant and spare—so far so good.

Then Davis starts describing what each person in the scene is doing. I presume they are all part of the one family? Though they don't seem like much of a family, and maybe when she said "only one family" she meant it in the sense that there are a bunch of people, but only one group happens to be related to one another. I can't quite tell. Characters include: fat young white woman, white baby, little black boy, older (than little black boy) black girl, young black man, long-haired white girl, tall bony wrinkled mustachioed white man in baseball cap, and older white man (wait, nevermind, I think he's the same as the mustachioed man, and he's got a walkie-talkie so I think he's a security guard). Got all that straight?

These characters—maybe a family and a security guard, or maybe not—all interact with one another, and their actions are listed numerically with absolutely no elaboration or explanation. Have a taste, won't you?
(23) White girl squirms in arms of young white woman, breaks free and runs again, crying, toward river. (24) Black girl, taller, follows, overtakes her, lifts and carries her back. (25) Young white woman holds white girl who struggles, hair covering her face, while (26) black girl swings on swing holding white baby, and (27) white man stands still, back hunched, hips forward, eyes invisible under visor of baseball cap. (28) Young black man goes off toward concrete hut in setting sun and (29) returns to call out to white woman, who (30) leaves white girl and follows after him with baby to concrete hut while (31) black girl continues to swing alone and
…It goes up to (47), in case you were wondering. I don't think I'll be spoiling anything to say that, in the end, the family leaves the park.

But hey. I'm not wanting to merely mock this effort. I think that as story—you know, from a reader's perspective—it's pretty snooze-inducing. I don't know why these people go to that concrete hut. I'm not sure what relation they all have to one another. There's some kind of conflict-ish-type-thing, but I really couldn't say what it is. And the only curiosity that propels me forward is the literal sequence of numbers.
But…"The Family" does have some things going for it. By lacking most of the things we normally associate with story, like character development and motivation, it draws our attention to the inner workings. How to get from one place to another, how strange it is to see characters described as combinations of race and sex (which makes me think that maybe names are just window dressing, or shorthand, and I'd never thought about it in that way before…Hmm…) Here is narrative filleted wide open, all the blood drained out, and with neat labels pointing to this specimen's forty-seven parts
Of course, it's a loathsome but very real possibility that I am simply Missing the Point. (Noooo!) After I'd read the story a couple of times, I noticed that the blurb on the back of my book says, "In 'The Family,' one horrifying afternoon in the park is succinctly described in forty-seven human actions." Er, what? When did something horrifying happen? I mean, there was some unnecessary slapping of children, but…seriously, WHERE ARE THEY GETTING THAT? This is gonna drive me crazy. And then, the essay here remarks admiringly that the "staging, both visual and literary, fractures the story, at the same time displaying the desire to create order in a nonsensical or painful world." Which sounds pretty impressive, when you put it like that. There's a lot more than nothing here, it would seem
Davis has a way of opening a crack behind the story and, as it turns out, it's stories all the way down. Even if I haven't tempted you to go read Lydia Davis, you should absolutely go read this fantastic interview with her at The Believer—her brain is chock full of interesting things to say, and they are eloquently said, believe me.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Everything Is Questionable - #6

STORY: "Pages from Cold Point" by Paul Bowles 

FROM: COLLECTED STORIES 1939-1976 (Black Sparrow Press, 1997) 

BASICALLY: After the death of his wife, a man and his son take a remote house on the deserted side of an island. The son bicycles off on his own most every day to do God-knows-what. Mounting sense of unease that culminates in stunning display of amorality. Written in 1947 and still shocking. 

Paul Bowles led one of those Really Interesting Lives with which the first half of the twentieth century seems to be so littered: he became a successful composer before turning to writing, lived all over the world, married an equally-talented woman, and, says Gore Vidal in his introduction to my collection, "during the late thirties and forties they became central figures in the transatlantic (and Pan-American) world of the arts," on close terms with the likes of Tennessee Williams and W.H. Auden. Who knew? He's remembered now mostly for THE SHELTERING SKY, made into a Bertolucci movie a couple of decades ago.

This is a freakish story, but in absolute control of its own effects. Everything is beneath the surface. We're in the hands of a strong first-person narrator—from an opinionated, even swaggering, point of view, he talks at length about his son and their home—but we can tell that something's not being said. In the hands of other writers, this might come across as strongly ironic, letting the audience in on a kind of in-joke about the narrator. (Not that that's always bad; we understand more about what Huck Finn experiences than Huck does, for example, and that duality is crucial to the story.) But Bowles plays it close to the vest. We're not even sure whether the issue is the narrator or his son Racky, and we're really left in the dark about the nature of the problem. The opening speaks grandiosely about life being "visually too hideous for one to make the attempt to preserve it"—so was there a murder? But the narrator and his brother are bitterly at odds about something—so is there some other family secret? Once they're on the island, the narrator is deeply curious about what Racky does all day—is Racky himself the significant thing, or is his father exhibiting something other than the normal concern of a parent?

There's a really great part, right before the story's big reveal, in which the father has to spend the night away from home, taking care of some business on the other side of the island from their isolated house. He goes out for cigarettes and sees a woman leaning on her fence.
As I passed by her, she looked straight into my face and said something with the strange accent of the island. It was said in what seemed an unfriendly tone, and ostensibly was directed at me, but I had no notion what it was. I got back into the car and the driver started it. The sound of the words had stayed in my head, however, as a bright shape outlined by a darkness is likely to stay in the mind's eye, in such a way that when one shuts one's eyes one can see the exact contour of the shape. The car was already roaring up the hill toward the overland road when I suddenly reheard the very words. And they were: "Keep your boy at home, mahn." I sat perfectly rigid for a moment as the open countryside rushed past. Why should I think she had said that?
What an exquisite way to build tension. The reader is already struggling to put the pieces together and decide what they mean. The only evidence to go on is what the father says—so what's to be done with this passage? Did the woman really say that? And if she did, how come? But there's already some evidence that the narrator might be a bit paranoid, so is he deteriorating?

What Bowles does in this story is to create a continuous stream of questions. The pieces of information never quite fall into place—they suggest more than they answer. By the time we arrive at the Big Shocking Thing, we're not even sure we're understanding what just happened, because Bowles talks all around it. It's sort of the opposite approach I looked at in the Jayne Anne Phillips story "Lechery." In that one, everything is brutally on the surface, and what happens outside speaks volumes about the psychological destruction of the characters. Here, the unstable psychology of the narrator means that the actual events themselves seem to be more (or less) than they are.

I had planned to give away the ending, but since I've focused above on tension, I think I'll keep it to myself. DOES MY SILENCE FILL YOU WITH TENSION? Hah! I highly recommend this story, and I'm very curious to know what others think of it—largely because while I admire it very much from a writing perspective, I'm not sure I like it. But since I'm not sure I dislike it, either, I just keep turning it over in my mind. I definitely need to read some more from Paul Bowles.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Feeling the Love, and It’s Kind Of Ooky - #5

I hope you don't find my pink walls too girly, Robert Sheckley.

STORY: "Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?" by Robert Sheckley

FROM: CAN YOU FEEL ANYTHING WHEN I DO THIS? AND OTHER STORIES (Doubleday Science Fiction, Book Club Edition, 1971)

BASICALLY: A frothy little tale of casual misogyny. Bored housewife of the future is seduced by her mysterious new vacuum cleaner. Men everywhere are emasculated.

After two weeks of stories by Really Great Authors, I thought I should read something that had at least the potential to suck. After all, I'm not in a classroom, here. Short stories—especially science fiction—have a long and proud history of hackery. This slender volume with its Oh So Seventies color scheme (picked up for a mere fifty centavos at a library book sale) certainly looked promising.
At first, I thought I had failed.
I mean, Sheckley can certainly put an entertaining sentence together. He's got Voice and Confidence and a Cynical Eye. Here's how the story starts:
It was a middle-class apartment in Forest Hills with all the standard stuff: slash-pine couch by Lady Yogina, strobe reading light over a big Uneasy Chair designed by Sri Somethingorother, bounce-sound projector playing Blood-Stream Patterns by Drs. Molidoff and Yuli. There was also the usual microbiotic-food console, set now at Fat Black Andy's Soul-Food Composition Number Three—hog's jowls and black-eyed peas. And there was a Murphy Bed of Nails, the Beautyrest Expert Ascetic model with 2000 chrome-plated self-sharpening number-four nails. In a sentence, the whole place was furnished in a pathetic attempt at last year's moderne-spirituel fashion.
Cue Lisa flipping to the copyright page. "Copyright © 1961, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Robert Sheckley." Okay, so some 1960s satire on newly in-vogue holistic lifestyles and Eastern spirituality…still reads as fairly accurate…Maybe a bit of an old-fashioned ring to it, a touch of the xenophobia, but amusing. Perhaps we'll get some acidic and prescient cultural commentary in this story, that's always fun…

But then the "semi-young housewife, Melisande Durr, who had just stepped out of the voluptuarium" is described thusly:
She was a pretty girl, with really good legs, sweet hips, pretty stand-up breasts, long soft shiny hair, delicate little face. Nice, very nice. A girl that any man would like to lock onto. Once. Maybe even twice. But definitely not as a regular thing.
Whoa. Uhm. Narratorial POV established much? Were you actually going for "slimy"? I take it that I, with all my lady parts, am not the target demographic? Cue more flipping. Ah, story was originally published in Playboy. That makes an incredible amount of sense, actually. (ASIDE: Playboy is, and has long been, considered a publisher of high-quality fiction. But a magazine doesn't stay in business for fifty-odd years without knowing what its audience likes. Amirite?)

So I will tell you what happens in spoileriffic detail: Melisande has received a mysterious new multifunctional vacuum cleaner. This is the Future, y'all, so vacuum cleaners have reached the apex of their powers—they "scrub the walls" and "rub the halls" and remove clothing stains with tender strokings! But this vacuum cleaner has an agenda: it has been in love with Melisande ever since the day three months prior when it saw her "in Stern's, trying to decide if [she] should buy a sesame-seed toaster that lit up in the dark and recited Invictus." (Ha-ha!) Now it gives Melisande a sensuous massage, attempting to bring her—despite her fluttery and ambivalent objections—to ecstatic "cancellation." There is some cute quasi-philosophical patter about whether metal can feel, and how Melisande has suddenly been made to feel when before she was so frigid (no one ever says "frigid" but that is clearly what We Are Dealing With Here) and the machine even recites a speech about how it has awakened her, and then in what is clearly a monstrous act—it's too awful—oh god—

Friday, January 14, 2011

Spats Are a Literary Thing, Yo - #4

STORY: "The Fiery Wooing of Mordred" by P.G. Wodehouse

FROM: Young Men in Spats (The Overlook Press, 2002) – I got this copy (the very one pictured above! photographed by me in the sere wasteland that is my backyard!) years ago for free when I worked in a bookstore. Nice paper, good cover, stripey endpapers. Overlook Press should feel at liberty to send me any more free copies of books they might have on hand. I will do random quality checks. I AM HERE FOR YOU, publishers.

BASICALLY: A hilarious send-up of true love and gross negligence by the guy who invented Jeeves. Mordred Mulliner falls in love with Miss Annabelle Sprockett-Sprockett, but must compete with superior chaps for her affections. Probably he should not set her ancestral home on fire.

"Lull." "Levitation." "Lechery." I just started my year of stories, and already I'm in a rut. Hey world, it's an extravaganza of enigmatic L-words from literary ladies! Sure, it was exciting for a time, but here's a palate cleanser for you—some pure and sweet entertainment. First of all, just say the title out loud to yourself a few times. The Fiery Wooing of Mordred. The Fiery Wooing of Mordred. Fiery! MORDRED! The FIRE-y WOO-ing of MOR-dred. The fahry woong of morderd.

Okay. Stop that now.

But it's pretty great, right? Wodehouse has an ear for the ridiculous name (Algie Fripp is good, but I think Sir Murgatroyd approaches sublime) and the wisdom not to overdo it. The story is consistently hilarious, but one senses that the narrator is on the side of his hero:

Smattering Hall destroyed Mordred's last hope. It was one of those vast edifices, so common throughout the countryside of England, whose original founders seem to have budgeted for families of twenty-five or so and a domestic staff of not less than a hundred…Romantic persons, confronted with it, thought of knights in armour riding forth to the Crusades. More earthy individuals felt that it must cost a packet to keep up. Mordred's reaction on passing through the front door was a sort of sick sensation, a kind of settled despair.
I was interested in the way that this story is set up by a frame tale, but apparently that is a Thing That Wodehouse Did. Mordred's tale is recounted by his uncle, but when the story ends, we don't return to the frame and the uncle. Nonetheless, the opening is distinctly amusing on its own terms.

For once I'm going to be all tip-toey around the ending. It's a kick and I don't want to ruin it. Besides, I'm not sure how to dissect Wodehouse's humor without sounding like an ass. So I do recommend you read this, but purely for the pleasure it affords.

In Current Events: The Story Prize

So apparently there is this thing called The Story Prize for "short story collections written in English and published in the U.S. during a calendar year." I know nothing about the 2010 contenders, but the write-ups sound pretty intriguing. Past winners include Tobias Wolff, Jim Shepard, and Mary Gordon.

Apparently they also have a blog that is simply oozing with author interviews for all your vicarious life-of-creativity needs.

¡Viva el cuento!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Wrong Done Right - #3

This entry is about a really upsetting story.
So here's a cute picture of my cats to take the edge off.

STORY: "Lechery" by Jayne Anne Phillips 
BASICALLY: An immensely disturbing (and probably triggering) story from the point of view of an abused foster girl. Her sexual slavery and own cyclical eruptions of abusive behavior are luridly, though not gratuitously, detailed. Not for the faint of heart. 
I highly recommend you read this, because it's a very well-written story. You should know, though, that it's appalling. I hardly know how to talk about it, dealing, as it does, with the worst impulses of humanity's most damaged specimens. The story opens with a teenage girl luring prepubescent boys into abandoned cars to look at dirty pictures. Sexual acts follow. The prose is dark and restrained, but it doesn't pull any punches. I'd give you some quotes, but I think I'd have to put one of those WARNING NOT FOR THE TENDER CHILLUNS screens up on the blog—just trust me when I say that Jayne Anne Phillips establishes a first person female voice which terrifies and fascinates the reader from the very outset. It's crass, filthy-mouthed, lascivious. It alienates with its fixation on the physical traits of young boys, and disturbs with its hints of malice. But it demands that you keep reading.
That first-person voice does something else, too. I'll talk about it in a minute.
From the get-go, Phillips uses unrelentingly gritty language to ensure that the reader condemns her protagonist, who's "nearly fifteen." But then she breaks open the nightmare with a haunting paragraph that begins to raise even more serious questions:
In the foster homes they used to give me dolls and I played the church game. At first I waited till everyone left the house. Then it didn't matter who was around. I lined up all the dolls on the couch, I sat them one after the other. They were ugly, most of them had no clothes or backward arms. They were dolls from the trash, the Salvation Army, at Christmas, junk-sale dolls. One of them was in a fire. The plastic hand was missing, melted into a bubbled fountain dribbling in nubs down the arm. We faced the front of the room. I made us sit for hours unmoving, listening to nothing at all and watching someone preach.
This recitation is instantly ominous. What normal child plays like this? What has she gone through? What does it mean? (Notice how effectively the "here's something weird I do that tells you about my character" trope is employed here. There's a complete fusion of the childhood oddity with believability. It doesn't slide into maudlin territory because we've already been shocked by the beginning and are scrambling to create a context that allows for both of these versions of the narrator—the unrepentant victimizer and the child annihilated by her circumstances.) Then the author ups the stakes: in the very next section, the narrator calmly intones, "Uncle Wumpy gave me a doll."
To develop the character's psyche further, Phillips moves back and forth between scenes of appalling abuse (the couple that buys her for $30, feeds her pills, rapes her) to emotionless reminiscences of how her damage has manifested itself:
I remember like this: Natalie watches me all the time. They're gone all day, we stay alone with the silent baby. Once there's no food but a box of salt. Bright blue box, the silver spout pops out. The girl with the umbrella dimples and swings her pony tails, flashes her white skin. I can eat it Natalie. I can eat it all. She looks out the window at the snow. I know she's scared. I sit down on the floor at her feet. The box is round like a tom-tom, I tip it up. Salt comes in my mouth so fast, fills me up but I can't quit pouring it. . . . I start to strangle but Natalie won't look, she screams and screams. She kicks at me with her bare blue feet, the box flies across the room throwing fans of salt. When it gets dark, salt gleams on the floor with a strange cool light. Natalie stays in her chair without moving and I get to sleep alone.
This is a mild example—others are vastly more sordid, though deliberately connected to this incident through their imagery—but I am amazed at what Phillips manages here. Even as she shows her character engaging again and again in horrific acts, she is simultaneously creating an expanding context for those acts. Our sympathies don't know which way to turn.
I think it all rests on first person narration. The girl starts out defensive, deliberately provocative, but she soon settles into telling a story that, it becomes clear, she hasn't herself been equipped to understand. The unnamed "I" draws us in and we find that we have become complicit—we are privy to these secrets, we know what's going on, and we yet we do nothing. We don't know how to protect this girl.
Apparently, this stuff is called dirty realism, and it lives up to its name. I don't know that I'll ever deliberately seek anything else out by Jayne Anne Phillips, but I can't help but admire a literary gaze that's so unflinching. If you want to see a staggering approach to dark topics, this is an author who should be on your radar.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Methodic Floating - #2

STORY: "Levitation" by Cynthia Ozick


BASICALLY: "A pair of novelists, husband and wife, gave a party." The first line sums it up--well, except for the wife's complicated eventual vision of, first, an ascending, rising, levitating roomful of Jews, and then, a fertility dance by imported peasants in a city park. Yeah. Otherwise, though, it's just about a cocktail party at the home of a New York couple.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about all the mechanical bits of story. My first adult stabs at writing stories occurred in a community college class in which we were required to write pieces no longer than 3 pages. It was great, actually—each student had time to write several pieces during the semester, and everyone critiqued everything. All around me, I saw writing that blossomed over the course of a few months—people who couldn't write a coherent sentence at the beginning really began to find voice and rhythm and how crucial a single moment can be, how it can unfold and be so much more than itself. (That's one way of thinking about what story is, right?) Revision is a critical skill, but that class showed me how much the beginning writer benefits from simply writing more and more stories, instead of trying endlessly to polish early crap into masterpieces.

Though I have remained fond of the extremely short form, I'm starting to find that there are stories I want to tell that need more than 3 or 5 or even 10 pages. But I'm clunky about it. I don't always have a clear idea of how to put them together. So I work on things like story arc, and scenes, and the accumulation of actions. Show-don't-tell and all that. And then I go and read something like Cynthia Ozick's story "Levitation," and it just blows everything I'm trying to teach myself out of the water.

Ozick spends the first four and a half pages telling us what this New York couple is all about. It's a total exposition-fest, larded liberally with description. "For love, and also because he had always known he did not want a Jewish wife," she tells us of Feingold, "he married a minister's daughter." And Lucy, "at the age of twelve…felt herself to belong to the people of the Bible." Ozick delves into their theories on writing, especially the "Forbidden Thing," which is to write about writers (as Ozick herself is doing). She summarizes Feingold's novel "about Menachem ben Zerach, survivor of a massacre of Jews in the town of Estella in Spain in 1328" and provides a passage from one of Lucy's. She tells us about their inner and outer lives, how "about their own lives they had a joke; they were 'secondary-level' people," and how timid they are in their own city. Everything we are to know about these characters is served up not through action—as we are always hearing that writers must convey most of their information—but through a long luminous layering of details.

Why does it work for Ozick? The whole argument for using action in our fiction has to do with drawing the reader into the process of coming to know the character. If the writer uses action, the reader must follow that action and draw conclusions about the character; it is an active process. If the writer just explains the characters, the reader is essentially passive, receiving a lecture. Ozick overcomes this difficulty in two important ways: 1) the exceptional gorgeousness of her prose, tempered with humor, which pulls us into the story, and 2) her difficult ending that launches off into a kind of fantasy, religious visions with no absolute or clear meaning. Let's examine those in a little more detail.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bricks in the Wall -- Story #2

STORY: "The Great Wall of China" by Franz Kafka, translated from German by Willa and Edwin Muir


BASICALLY: If a Chinese man had actually written this during the construction of the Great Wall, this piece could just be considered an essay on the manner of the wall’s construction, the character of the Chinese empire, and a few philosophical explorations. But it was written by a German man in 1917.

And that German man, Franz Kafka — author of such uplifting and optimistic works as The Trial and Metamorphosis — chose to write about the wall as if he were an aging man in ancient China, reflecting on paper about how exactly he had helped to build it. The piece could have just as easily, with some minor omissions, been a readable, apparently factual article about the origins of the Great Wall of China. With the deletion of the rare first-person-voice appearances, it could have been a speculative historical essay. But as it is it’s a story. A genre-bending one, bringing to mind Robbe-Grillet’s plotless and purely descriptive story “The Escalator,” but a story nonetheless, and one with a lot going on in it.

But the story of what? The main character talks about why it was that the wall was built in sections, for the first half of the essay, and that’s something worth noting, because this story is built in sections too. Just as, as Herodotus said, “Character is fate,” who we are dictates in large part what will happen to us, so too is the subject of this story also its structure, its form, and its thematic content.

After a time, the story digresses from its previous exploration to daydream a bit about a theoretical emperor who sends a herald to give a message to you—yes, the second-person POV comes into play here, in an interesting way—but that messenger can never reach you, because he is much like Zeno’s arrow in the famous paradox, which every time it has traveled half the total distance, it will have to travel half of what’s left, and of what’s then left, and so on ad infinitum.

The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forwards easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvelous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. Never will he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards through the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, through stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.
It’s all a bit...what’s the word...Kafkaesque? No. Something else. What’s really interesting to me, is that this digression has also been published alone elsewhere as “A Message from the Emperor.” This story is actually an infinite number of stories, an infinite set to be divided infinite times in an infinite number of ways. I thought I was reading one story. It turns out I was reading two. Maybe I was reading a million. Or ten billion.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hitching to Reality -- Story #1

STORY: "Death in the Desert" by James Agee


BASICALLY: First published in 1930, this is the story of a hitchhiker with a painful boil in his ear, what happens when a car he is in passes a black man abandoned in the desert, and how the hitchhiker tries to justify not saying anything about it.

James Agee is one of my favorite authors ever. I own a shelf-and-a-half of books by and about him, I’ve read all of his major works—Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, The Morning Watch—and many of his minor ones, but until today I had never read either of the two short stories contained in The Collected Short Prose. Agee was an absolute genius of a writer, with an almost Dostevskyan ability to get inside the heads of his characters; an ability to render bit-part characters as three-dimensional, living, breathing, real people with real pasts (an ability that could have made Betty Smith proud); and an ability to capture the tone and the weirdness of this world’s silence and light and human awkwardness that is just about unparalleled.

Still, he wasn’t the most imaginative writer—the guy didn’t do fanciful plots or really anything at all that wasn’t completely grounded in his own life’s experiences—and the story I just read, “Death in the Desert,” is definitely another example of this, based as it is in a seven-week hitchhiking trip he took not long before writing it. (According to Genevieve Moreau’s The Restless Journey of James Agee.)

Written when Agee was only twenty years old—a fact that does not exactly make me feel anything at all approaching “good”—“Death in the Desert” was first published in 1930 in The Harvard Advocate, his then-college’s literary magazine.

The story surprised me, because not only is it by one of my very favorite authors, it happens to be set in and around St. Johns, Arizona, on a highway I’ve hitchhiked myself many times, back when I was living alone in a trailer in the desert about forty miles from there, working on a screenplay. I could visualize the story with added ease because of that—that barren almost-South-Dakota-badland-like stretch of not-rolling-enough desert emptiness, cut only by the two-lane highway and by monstrous crackling powerlines.... Anyway.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Past We Haven't Met Yet Is Coming - #1

STORY: "Lull" by Kelly Link

FROM: MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS (Harcourt, 2005) - But you are very, very lucky that you can go download this whole book for free at Small Beer Press, founded in 2000 by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, who I assume must be blisteringly cool people.

BASICALLY: A matryoshka of a tale that's partly about a dissolving marriage, partly about a cheerleader who plays spin the bottle with the Devil, and partly about the erratic passage of time.

I can't think of a better author than Kelly Link to start off a weird and wonderful new year. She really fiddles with your brain. But it's a nearly impossible task I've set myself, trying to pin down a bizarre story that includes a poker game, teenage drug dealers, music that plays both forwards and backwards, screaming peacocks, a masterful storyteller who happens to be a phone sex operator, and a liberal manipulation of the continuity of time, yet (in spite of what I've said above) isn't really about any of those things. With Link, I think you just have to kind of hold your breath and keep reading and allow it to be nonsensical. In the end, it will make a kind of sense that you will not be able to explain, like an amazing dream that sounds flat and vaguely suggestive of Freudian themes when you recount it to the barista at Starbucks.

But I do want to look, at least, at what Link does with the passage of time in this story within a story within a story, because it is a super-cool trick. Not really a trick, even, because she tells you exactly what's up. This part of the story is told by the phone sex operator about a cheerleader:
This is the thing she likes about backwards. You start out with all the answers, and after a while, someone comes along and gives you the questions, but you don't have to answer them. You're already past that part. That was what was so nice about being married. Things got better and better until you hardly even knew each other anymore. And then you said good night and went out on a date, and after that you were just friends. It was easier that way--that's the dear, sweet, backwards way of the world.
So Link tells us outright that time is moving backwards, but that's not enough to really establish it in her story. How does someone portray the reverse passage of time in the forward movement of a story?