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.


Melissa said...

Wow, this totally sounds like a story I would hate! Now I'm tempted to go read to see exactly how much I will hate it.... stupid brain.

Lisa said...

Sounds unpleasant? Painful? A special kind of torture? THAT'S HOW YOU KNOW IT'S GOOD FOR YOU.

However, doesn't it also sound like the kind of thing you could speak dismissively about at a cocktail party? THAT IS HOW YOU KNOW IT'S LITERATURE.

You know, Melissa, there's a really weird aspect to this story that I didn't even touch on, because it would give it away, but I'm looking for some outside validation to know whether or not I'm supposed to be offended by it...

Melissa said...

Ok, I finally went to the library and read this fucker. My cocktail party strategy is to compare Bowles unfavorably to Nabokov.

I thought that the beginning of this story was excellent, and I grudgingly appreciated the way Bowles created an atmosphere of tension and menace without much action. However, in the end, the story doesn't quite work for me because it's not upsetting enough. I know that sounds weird, given the subject matter, but the EVENT by itself is not sufficiently shocking. I want to see the psychological aftermath. The narrator is already disenchanted with pretty much all of society/humanity at the beginning of the story (and I don't think Bowles was assuming a voice here, I think he was just channeling himself), but still in love with his son. I wanted to see his belief in Racky's essential nature come crashing down as well.

Lisa Barrow said...

I think everything you have to say, Melissa, is impossibly brilliant... except that I maybe wouldn't compare Bowles unfavorably to someone significantly more famous than him. Perhaps you could talk about how much better Nathaniel West was? (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_Lonelyhearts)

Other questions you have prompted:
I wonder if Bowles wasn't going for a nihilistic absence in his lack of psychological aftermath? As if the most shocking thing of all could be for there to be no punishment for Racky, no devastating outcome for the narrator.

Or I wonder if Bowles just kept it all unstated out of a zeitgeist-sensitive delicacy?

But I don't get the feeling that anything happens to his belief in Racky--he willingly signs over the money in Hope's estate, after all. He seems to me to be defeated by Racky. His own son is willing to take things much further than he ever would himself dare, and he's sort of helpless to do anything but enable it. But I don't know.

Well, as I write that, I'm realizing that no, it's just that Racky's baldly blackmailing him by threatening to call Uncle Charley, just like Racky supposedly had something on Peter. And the narrator can't admit it, not even to himself... And that seems like a terribly interesting response--the complete psychological imperviousness of the narrator to the reality of the situation.

I just noticed, too, that the ending line is basically the polar opposite of that opening (which I, too, had taken as very authorial-voice-tacked-on)... but it's so directly the counter to the ending, it seems now like a conscious choice.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I find it freaky exactly how much this story mutates in my mind, the more I think about it and about what you're saying about it.

Melissa said...

Lisa, Lisa, Lisa, YOU are the impossibly brilliant one. Look at you, writing a writerly blog about literature. I am (very seriously) impressed.

Even though now you're exposing my shocking ignorance of second-tier writers. I have no idea who Nathaniel West is. But I defend my choice of Nabokov because it's a cocktail party, not a dissertation, and my biogeek friends will recognize the name. The reason I went with Nabokov is purely due to a similarity of subject matter between this story and VN’s most famous work, and the unfavorable comparison part is how the authors handle it. Nabokov's prose is so incandescent that it makes the heart leap even as the stomach churns. But Bowles conjures (for me) nothing more than a weary unease. Even the title of the piece tells us that there is no fire, no heat, in this story. And I get that that’s probably the point, but it still just doesn’t do it for me.

Funnily enough, I picked up on the blackmail, but then had to go back and reread to figure out exactly what Racky had on his father. I had completely missed the event. And I see now what you’re saying about the narrator being defeated and you've made me realize that maybe the lack of reaction by the narrator is, in fact, his reaction. But I'm still disappointed. The narrator is so firm and decided in his opinions at the beginning that I don’t really understand the psychological collapse. Even if he doesn’t blame Racky, I want him to blame someone. Himself, or (more likely) the evil, evil thing that is modern society.

And now that I read your comments, I think I have one more problem. We don’t really get a good read on Racky’s character at all. Is he just an inherently bad person? Or has he somehow been traumatized by his father growing up and now is escaping from him the only way he can? Or is he imitating behavior learned from his father? That early scene with Uncle Charley makes me wonder exactly what happened before the story started.

Well, anyway, I guess I have to give Bowles some credit. He makes me uneasy, that’s for sure. But I still want more than that.

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